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Talking shop with Twitter’s recent head of corp dev — and now VC — Seksom Suriyapa

By Connie Loizos

Seksom Suriyapa was seemingly destined to land at a venture firm. A Stanford Law graduate, he worked at two blue-chip investment banks before joining the cybersecurity company McAfee as a senior corp dev employee, later logging six years at the human resources software company SuccessFactors and, in 2018, landing at Twitter, where he headed up its 12-person corporate development team until June.

The bigger surprise is that Suriyapa — who just joined the L.A.-based venture firm Upfront Ventures — didn’t make the leap sooner. “The catalyst was finding a firm that felt like the exact right fit for me,” says Suriyapa.

We talked earlier today with Suriyapa — who lives and will remain in the Bay Area — about his new role at Upfront, where he will be leading its expanding growth-stage practice with firm founder Yves Sisteron.

He also shed light on how Twitter — which has been on a bit of buying spree — thinks about acquisitions these days. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: How did you wind up joining Upfront?

SS: [Longtime partner] Mark Suster and I were introduced through a mutual business acquaintance in the venture world, and I got to know him over a period of time and really came to find him to be a remarkable individual. He’s thoughtful about the business itself, he’s an incredible brand builder. I think you could argue that [Upfront] put L.A. on the venture map.

TC: It was also, for a long time, an early-stage firm, but now it has a ‘barbell’ strategy. Is your new job to make sure it can maintain its stake in its portfolio companies as they grow? Can you shop outside of that portfolio?

SS: The mission for me will be supporting the best of Upfront’s hundred-plus existing portfolio companies that are poised to scale, and also to invest in companies not currency on the platform, and I anticipate [the latter] will happen more and more over time.

TC: Twitter was a lot more active on the corp dev front during the years when you were there. Why?

SS: When i joined in 2018, Jack Dorsey had been CEO for about three years, and really his focus was on the core mission of driving the public conversation, and in doing that, Twitter shrunk itself out of a lot of businesses and [shrunk] people wise as well.

TC: I remember it laid people off in 2016.

SS: And one of the offshoots of that was way less in the way of newer products, so there were no new acquisitions in the three years prior to me joining, and that muscle atrophies if you don’t exercise it. So [ahead of me] Jack had transformed the management team, which had been, relatively speaking, a revolving door of executives until that point, and I was brought in with a specific mandate of reviving a corporate development practice that had been quiet for a few years. I’d known [CFO] Ned Segal when he was a banker at Goldman Sachs and [while] I was at SuccessFactors, so when I heard about the role through the grapevine, I reached out.

TC: So Twitter starts shopping, buying up the news reader service Scroll, the newsletter platform Revue. Were these decisions coming down from the top or vice versa?

SS: The best way to describe it would be that it was product-need driven. The company had a few different objectives. One was to diversify Twitter from its dependency on being an ad-driven business. Something like 80% of revenue comes from ads.

Second, there’s an incredible need to ramp up its machine learning and artificial intelligence as a company. If you’re looking for toxicity in conversation, it’s not scalable to hire tens of thousands of people to do that. You need machine learning to find it. Twitter done well is also able to show you the conversations that are most interesting to you, and to do that, it has to take signals from what you follow and spend time reading and what you interact with, and that, at its core, is ML AI.  [Relatedly] Jack has a vision that anybody who tweets in whatever their native tongue is should be able to talk with someone else in their native tongue as part of a global conversation, and to do that, you need [natural language processing] techniques galore.

TC: There’s also this focus on consumer applications.

SS: That’s the third objective. What are the tools that followers and creators can use in conversation with each other? So [Twitter] added audio [via its Clubhouse rival Spaces]. We bought Revue, which is a competitor to Substack. So there’s a lot of innovation happening around the type of content that someone should expect to see or create on Twitter.

TC: Would you describe these acquisitions as proactive or reactive?

SS: From the outside it would seem reactive, but the reality is we’d been thinking a lot about something like Spaces even before Clubhouse took off. I think what’s noticeable to me is [Spaces] is one of the first times you’ve seen a company like Twitter build up a capability and a new product area that’s going head-to-head going against a company that’s focused only on that realm, and it’s competitive from day one. Twitter beat Clubhouse in [offering an] Android version because it poured resources into it, and I’d argue that a lot of the mechanics of Twitter and the fact that creators are on Twitter puts it in an awesome spot to win this segment.

Twitter also just has a huge amount of expertise in finding toxicity and things you want to be wary of when you’re a social media play, and a company of Clubhouse’s size, at least in its initial days, will have a hard time getting there.

TC: Twitter has so many interests, including around cryptocurrencies and decentralization. 

SS: In terms of priorities at Twitter,  a lot is under wraps in terms of the technologies that we expect [will rise up over] the next five  to 10 years, but [a lot of thought is being given to] the impact of cryptocurrency and the underlying protocols around it and how Twitter participates in a trustless, permissionless [world] where there’s a decentralized internet that can protect people’s privacy and allow people not to worry where their content is stored. People think of Twitter as a consumer app but there’s amazing and considerable diversity under the hood.

TC: Do you think because of the current regulatory environment that it has a better shot at working with companies and projects that might have gotten snapped up by Facebook and Google?

In terms of the regulatory environment, the reality is that even if you take the Facebooks and Googles out of the equation, there are acquirers that are competitive that would step up and buy things, so it’s a little short-sighted to think of just those two. But even when they were active, we were winning [deals]. A lot of the companies we acquired self-selected to be at Twitter because they like what it stands for, they like the way that Jack Dorsey leads the organization, and they believe in the stands that he takes and the positions that he and his leadership espouse.

TC: You’re now representing a very different brand. How will your work at Twitter help you compete for deals on behalf of Upfront?

SS: I have this network of incredible entrepreneurs around the world because of companies across my career that I’ve helped acquire or tried to acquire or who are running businesses; I also [have relationships with] VCs at different stages who actively spot businesses around the world [and introduce them to corp dev teams]. You might also know that Twitter has a diversity and inclusion program where they intend to have 25% of leadership be diverse over the next several years, so my team was often involved in finding the best ways to find diverse targets to buy. I also led a series of LP investments into newly emerging funds, some LatinX-founded, some women-founded, some Black-founded, some that were diverse from a geographic standpoint that are scouting companies in far flung places . . .

TC: Does Twitter also make direct investments?

SS: We did direct investments but [backing fund managers] is a more leveraged approach. Most of them are seed funds and they’ll in turn invest in 30 to 60 companies each. But yes, I scouted companies in far flung places, including [India’s] ShareChat where I served on the board for two years. [Editor’s note: TechCrunch reported earlier this year that Twitter explored buying ShareChat at an earlier point; the company has since raised numerous rounds of funding and was most recently valued by its investors at nearly $3 billion.]

TC: You have a lot of relationships, but it would still seem really hard to compete for growth-stage deals when so many other outfits are now investing there, too. How do you plan to compete?

SS: I will clearly be drawing on those networks to find deals. I’ll be investing in sectors where Upfront has already invested in, but initially I’ll be double-clicking [in areas[ I have strong interest in, including around the creator economy ecosystem, because I did so much of that at Twitter, and “Web 3.0,” this permissionless [evolution that Twitter is also focused on]. But I won’t kid myself. You compete by learning what your value proposition is. At Twitter, my strategy was winning on speed, knowing people earlier, and [underscoring] Twitter’s value proposition [to close deals]. I can’t talk about my [VC] strategy without having implemented yet; I’ll have to figure out what’s most interesting to entrepreneurs that the megafunds don’t offer.

Playbyte’s new app aims to become the ‘TikTok for games’

By Sarah Perez

A startup called Playbyte wants to become the TikTok for games. The company’s newly launched iOS app offers tools that allow users to make and share simple games on their phone, as well as a vertically scrollable, fullscreen feed where you can play the games created by others. Also like TikTok, the feed becomes more personalized over time to serve up more of the kinds of games you like to play.

While typically, game creation involves some aspect of coding, Playbyte’s games are created using simple building blocks, emoji and even images from your Camera Roll on your iPhone. The idea is to make building games just another form of self-expression, rather than some introductory, educational experience that’s trying to teach users the basics of coding.

At its core, Playbyte’s game creation is powered by its lightweight 2D game engine built on web frameworks, which lets users create games that can be quickly loaded and played even on slow connections and older devices. After you play a game, you can like and comment using buttons on the right-side of the screen, which also greatly resembles the TikTok look-and-feel. Over time, Playbyte’s feed shows you more of the games you enjoyed as the app leverages its understanding of in-game imagery, tags and descriptions, and other engagement analytics to serve up more games it believes you’ll find compelling.

At launch, users have already made a variety of games using Playbyte’s tools — including simulators, tower defense games, combat challenges, obbys, murder mystery games, and more.

We made an app called Playbyte that lets you make games on your phone, discover games made by other users, and challenge your friends https://t.co/FFnMbKG1ls pic.twitter.com/eqhabN3kM1

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) May 25, 2021

According to Playbyte founder and CEO Kyle Russell — previously of Skydio, Andreessen Horowitz, and (disclosure!) TechCrunch — Playbyte is meant to be a social media app, not just a games app.

“We have this model in our minds for what is required to build a new social media platform,” he says.

What Twitter did for text, Instagram did for photos and TikTok did for video was to combine a constraint with a personalized feed, Russell explains. “Typically. [they started] with a focus on making these experiences really brief…So a short, constrained format and dedicated tools that set you up for success to work within that constrained format,” he adds.

Similarly, Playbyte games have their own set of limitations. In addition to their simplistic nature, the games are limited to five scenes. Thanks to this constraint, a format has emerged where people are making games that have an intro screen where you hit “play,” a story intro, a challenging gameplay section, and then a story outro.

In addition to its easy-to-use game building tools, Playbyte also allows game assets to be reused by other game creators. That means if someone who has more expertise makes a game asset using custom logic or which pieced together multiple components, the rest of the user base can benefit from that work.

“Basically, we want to make it really easy for people who aren’t as ambitious to still feel like productive, creative game makers,” says Russell. “The key to that is going to be if you have an idea — like an image of a game in your mind — you should be able to very quickly search for new assets or piece together other ones you’ve previously saved. And then just drop them in and mix-and-match — almost like Legos — and construct something that’s 90% of what you imagined, without any further configuration on your part,” he says.

In time, Playbyte plans to monetize its feed with brand advertising, perhaps by allowing creators to drop sponsored assets into their games, for instance. It also wants to establish some sort of patronage model at a later point. This could involve either subscriptions or even NFTs of the games, but this would be further down the road.

The cutest lil sprite blob I’ve ever seen 😭#pixelart #gamedev pic.twitter.com/7uBRzs6ix0

— Playbyte (@PlaybyteInc) August 21, 2021

The startup had originally began as a web app in 2019, but at the end of last year, the team scrapped that plan and rewrote everything as a native iOS app with its own game engine. That app launched on the App Store this week, after previously maxing out TestFlight’s cap of 10,000 users.

Currently, it’s finding traction with younger teenagers who are active on TikTok and other collaborative games, like Roblox, Minecraft, or Fortnite.

“These are young people who feel inspired to build their own games but have been intimidated by the need to learn to code or use other advanced tools, or who simply don’t have a computer at home that would let them access those tools,” notes Russell.

Playbyte is backed by $4 million in pre-seed and seed funding from investors including FirstMark (Rick Heitzmann), Ludlow Ventures (Jonathon Triest and Blake Robbins), Dream Machine (former Editor-in-Chief at TechCrunch, Alexia Bonatsos), and angels such as Fred Ehrsam, co-founder of Coinbase; Nate Mitchell, co-founder of Oculus; Ashita Achuthan, previously of Twitter; and others.

The app is a free download on the App Store.

Barbershop technology startup theCut sharpens its platform with new $4.5M round

By Christine Hall

TheCut, a technology platform designed to handle back-end operations for barbers, raised $4.5 million in new funding.

Nextgen Venture Partners led the round and was joined by Elevate Ventures, Singh Capital and Leadout Capital. The latest funding gives theCut $5.35 million in total funding since the company was founded in 2016, founder Obi Omile Jr. told TechCrunch.

Omile and Kush Patel created the mobile app that provides information and reviews on barbers for potential customers while also managing appointments, mobile payments and pricing on the back end for barbers.

“Kush and I both had terrible experiences with haircuts, and decided to build an app to help find good barbers,” Omile said. “We found there were great barbers, but no way to discover them. You can do a Google search, but it doesn’t list the individual barber. With theCut, you can discover an individual barber and discover if they are a great fit for you and won’t screw up your hair.”

The app also enables barbers, perhaps for the first time, to have a list of clients and keep notes and photos of hair styles, as well as track visits and spending. By providing payments, barbers can also leverage digital trends to provide additional services and extras to bring in more revenue. On the customer side, there is a search function with barber profile, photos of their work, ratings and reviews, a list of service offerings and pricing.

Omile said there are 400,000 to 600,000 barbers in the U.S., and it is one of the fastest-growth markets. As a result, the new funding will be used to hire additional talent, marketing and to grow the business across the country.

“We’ve gotten to a place where we are hitting our stride and seeing business catapulting, so we are in hiring mode,” he added.

Indeed, the company generated more than $500 million in revenue for barbers since its launch and is adding over 100,000 users each month. In addition, the app averages 1.5 million appointment bookings each month.

Next up, Omile wants to build out some new features like a digital store and the ability to process more physical payments by rolling out a card reader for in-person payments. TheCut will also focus on enabling barbers to have more personal relationships with their customers.

“We are building software to empower people to be the best version of themselves, in this case barbers,” he added. “The relationship with customers is an opportunity for the barber to make specific recommendations on products and create a grooming experience.”

As part of the investment, Leadout founder and managing partner Ali Rosenthal joined the company’s board of directors. She said Omile and Patel are the kind of founders that venture capitalists look for — experts in their markets and data-driven technologists.

“They had done so much with so little by the time we met them,” Rosenthal added. “They are creating a passionate community and set of modern, tech-driven features that are tailored to the needs of their customers.”

 

For VCs, the game right now is musical chairs

By Connie Loizos

In many ways, there has never been a better time to be a venture capitalist. Nearly everyone in the industry is raking in money, either through long-awaited exits or because more capital flooding into the industry has meant more money in management fees  — and sometimes both.

Still, a growing number of early-stage investors with whom we talk to on a routine basis are wary about the pace of dealmaking. It’s not just that it’s a lot harder to write checks at what feels like a reasonable clip at the moment, or that most VCs feel they can no longer afford to be price sensitive. Many of the founders with whom they work are being handed follow-on checks before figuring out how best to deploy their last round of funding.

Consider that from 2016 through 2019, an average of 35 deals a month featured rounds of $100 million or more, according to the data company CB Insights. This year, 126 companies a month on average have been raising those kinds of megarounds. The froth is hardly contained to maturing companies. Even the median U.S. Series A valuation hit $42 million in the second quarter, driven in part crossover investors like Tiger Global, which closed 1.26 deals per business day in Q2. (Andreessen Horowitz wasn’t far behind.)

It makes for some bewildering times, including for longtime investor Jeff Clavier, the founder the early-stage venture firm Uncork Capital. Like many of his peers, Clavier is benefiting from the booming market. Among Uncork’s portfolio companies, for example is LaunchDarkly, a company that helps software developers avoid missteps. The seven-year-old company announced $200 million in Series D funding last month at a $3 billion valuation. That’s triple the valuation it was assigned early last year.

“It’s an awesome company, so I’m very excited for them,” says Clavier.

At the same time, he added, “You have to put this money to work in a very smart way.”

That’s not so easy in this market, where founders are inundated with interest and, in some cases, are talking term sheets after the first Zoom with an investor. (“The most absurd thing we’ve heard are funds that are making decisions after a 30-minute call with the founder,” says TX Zhou, the cofounder of L.A.-based seed-stage firm Fika Ventures, which itself just tripled the amount of assets it’s managing.)

More money can mean a much longer lifeline for a company. But as many investors have learned the hard way, it can also serve as a distraction, as well as hide fundamental issues with a business until it’s too late to address them.

Taking on more money also oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with a bigger valuation, and lofty valuations comes with their own positives and negatives. On the plus side, of course, big numbers can attract more attention to a company from the press, from customers, and from potential new hires.  At the same time, “The more money you raise, the higher the valuation it is, it catches up with you on the next round, because you got to clear that watermark,” says Renata Quintini of the venture firm Renegade Partners, which focuses largely on Series B-stage companies.

Again, in today’s market, trying to slow down isn’t always possible. Quintini says that some founders her firm has talked to have said, “‘I’m not going to raise any more because I cannot go faster; I cannot deploy more than my model is already supporting.'” For others, she continues, “You’ve got to look at what’s happening around you, and sometimes if your competitors are raising and they’re going to have a bigger war chest . . and [they’re] pushing the market forward . . . and maybe they can out-hire you or they can outspend you in certain areas where they can generate more traction than you . . .” that next check, often at the higher valuation, begins to look like the only option.

Many VCs have argued that today’s valuations make sense because companies are creating new markets, growing faster than before, and have more opportunities to expand globally, and certainly, in some cases, that it is true. Indeed, companies that were previously believed to be richly priced by their private investors, like Airbnb and Doordash, have seen their valuations soar as publicly traded companies.

Yet it’s also true that for many more companies, “valuation is completely disconnected from the [companies’] multiples,” says Clavier, echoing what other VCs acknowledge privately.

That might seem to be the kind of problem that investors love to face. But as been the case for years now, that depends on how long this go-go market lasts.

Clavier says that one of his own companies that “did a great Series A and did a great Series B ahead of its time is now being preempted for a Series C, and the valuation is just completely disconnected from their actual reality.”

He said he’s happy for the outfit “because I have no doubt they will catch up. But this is the point: they will have to catch up.”

For more from our conversation with Clavier, by the way, you can listen here.

Shepherd raises $6.2M seed round to tackle the construction insurance market

By Alex Wilhelm

Shepherd, an insurtech startup focused on the construction market, has closed a $6.15 million seed round led by Spark Capital. The funding event comes after the startup raised a pre-seed round in February led by Susa Ventures, which also participated in Shepherd’s latest fundraising event.

Thinking broadly, Shepherd fits into a theme of neoinsurance providers selling more to other companies than to consumers. Insurtech startups serving consumers enjoyed years of venture capital backing only to find their public debuts met with early optimism followed quickly by eroding share prices.

But companies like Shepherd — and Blueprint Title earlier this week — are wagering on there being margin elsewhere in the insurance world to attack. For Shepherd, the construction market is its target, an industry that it intends to carve into starting with excess liability coverage.

The company’s co-founder and CEO, Justin Levine, told TechCrunch that contractors in the construction space have a number of insurance requirements, including general liability, commercial auto and so forth. But construction projects often also require more liability coverage, which is sold as excess or umbrella policies.

Targeting the middle-market of the construction space — companies doing $25 million to $250 million in projects per year, in its view — Shepherd wants to lean on technology as a way to help underwrite customers.

Levine said that his company’s offering will have two core parts. The first is what you expected, namely a complete digital experience for customers. The CEO likened its digital offering to table stakes for the insurtech world. We agree. But the company gets more interesting when we consider its second half, namely its work to partner with construction tech providers to help it make underwriting decisions.

The startup has partnered with Procore, for example, a company that invested in its business.

The concept of leaning on third-party software companies to help make underwriting decisions makes some sense — companies that are more technology-forward in terms of adopting new techniques and methods won’t have the same underwriting profile as companies that don’t. Generally, more data makes for better underwriting decisions; linking to the software that helps construction companies function makes good sense from that perspective.

The CEO of Procore agrees, telling TechCrunch that an early customer of his business said that its product is “a risk management solution disguised as construction management software.” The more risk that is managed, the lower Shepherd’s loss ratios may prove over time, allowing it to better compete on price.

On the subject of price, Levine thinks that the construction insurance market is suffering at the moment. Rising settlement costs have led to some legacy insurance books in the space with larger-than-anticipated losses, pushing some providers to raise prices. Levine’s view is that that Shepherd’s ability to enter its market without a legacy book of business will help it offer competitive rates.

Excess liability coverage is the “wedge” that Shepherd intends to use to get into the construction insurance market, it said, with intention of launching other products in time. The startup is attacking excess liability coverage first, its CEO said, because it’s the place of maximum pain in the larger construction insurance market.

Frankly, TechCrunch finds the B2B neoinsurance startup market fascinating. Selling policies to consumers has a particular set of cost of goods sold (COGS) — varying based on the type of coverage, of course — and often stark go-to-market costs. Furthermore, customer acquisition costs (CACs) can prove irksome when going up against national brands with huge budgets. Perhaps the business insurance market will prove more lucrative for upstart tech companies. Venture investors are certainly willing to place that particular wager.

Natalie Sandman led the deal for Spark, telling TechCrunch that when she first encountered Shepherd it was working on a different project, but that when it shifted its focus, it struck a chord with her firm. The investor said that the idea of bringing new data to the construction insurance underwriting process may help the company make smarter decisions. In the insurance world, better underwriting choices mean more profitable coverage. Which means greater future cash flows. And we all know that that means for value creation.

HomeLight closes on $100M Series D at a $1.6B valuation as revenue surges

By Mary Ann Azevedo

HomeLight, which operates a real estate technology platform, announced today that it has secured $100 million in a Series D round of funding and $263 million in debt financing.

Return backer Zeev Ventures led the equity round, which also included participation from Group 11, Stereo Capital, Menlo Ventures and Lydia Jett of the SoftBank Vision Fund. The financings bring the San Francisco-based company’s total raised since its 2012 inception to $530 million. The equity financing brings HomeLight’s valuation to $1.6 billion, which is about triple of what it was when it raised its $109 million in debt and equity in a Series C that was announced in November of 2019.

Zeev Ventures led that funding round, as well as its Series A in 2015.

The latest capital comes ahead of projected “3x” year-over-year growth, according to HomeLight founder and CEO Drew Uher, who projects that the company’s annual revenue will triple to over $300 million in 2021. Doing basic math, we can deduce that the company saw around $100 million in revenue in 2020.

Over the years, like many other real estate tech platforms, HomeLight has evolved its model. HomeLight’s initial product focused on using artificial intelligence to match consumers and real estate investors to agents. Since then, the company has expanded to also providing title and escrow services to agents and home sellers and matching sellers with iBuyers. In July 2019, HomeLight acquired Eave as an entry into the (increasingly crowded) mortgage lending space.

“Our goal is to remove as much friction as possible from the process of buying or selling a home,” Uher said.

In January 2020, HomeLight launched its flagship financial products, HomeLight Trade-In and HomeLight Cash Offer. Since then, it has grown those products by over 700%, Uher said, in part fueled by the pandemic.

HomeLight’s Trade-In product gives its clients greater control over the timeline of their move and ability to transact, and Cash Offer gives people a way to make all cash offers on homes, “even if they need a mortgage,” he said. 

“The pandemic only highlighted many of the pain points in the real estate transaction process that we’ve been focused on solving since our founding,” Uher told TechCrunch. “Between the real estate industry’s historic information asymmetry, outdated processes and unreasonable costs — not to mention today’s record-low inventory and all-time high bidding wars — buying or selling a home can be an incredibly difficult process, even without the challenges put in place by a global pandemic.”

Image Credits: HomeLight

Then in August 2020, the company acquired Disclosures.io and launched HomeLight Listing Management, with the goal of making it easier for agents to share property information, monitor buyer interest and manage offers in one place. 

In June of 2021, HomeLight appointed Lyft chairman and former Trulia CFO Sean Aggarwal to its board.

Uher founded HomeLight after he and his wife felt the pain of trying to buy a home in the competitive Bay Area market.

“The process of buying a home in San Francisco was so frustrating it made me want to bang my head against the wall,” Uher told me at the time of HomeLight’s Series C. “I realized there were so many things wrong with the real estate industry. I went through a few real estate agents before finding the right match. So when I did find one, it made me feel empowered to compete and win against the other buyers.”

He started HomeLight with a single product, its agent matching platform, which uses “proprietary machine-learning algorithms” to analyze millions of real estate transactions and agent profiles. It claims to connect a client to a real estate agent on average “every 90 seconds.”

Over the years, Uher said that hundreds of thousands of agents have applied to be a part of the HomeLight agent network and that it has worked with over 1 million homebuyers and sellers in the U.S. Today, the company works closely with the top 28,000 of those agents across the country. HomeLight maintains that it is not trying to replace real estate agents, but instead work more collaboratively with them.

Uher said the company plans to use its new capital in part toward expanding to new markets its Trade-In and Cash Offer operations. HomeLight Trade-In and Cash Offer are currently available in California, Texas and, more recently, in Colorado.

“We plan to expand as quickly as we can across the entire country,” Uher said. “We also plan to hire aggressively in 2021 and beyond.”

HomeLight presently has over 500 employees, up from about 350 at the end of last year. The company has offices in Scottsdale, Arizona, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and Tampa, and plans to open new sites throughout the U.S. in the coming months. 

Oren Zeev, founding partner at Zeev Ventures, said he believes that HomeLIght is better positioned than any other proptech company “to reinvent the transaction experience” for agents and their clients.

“With the onset of iBuyers and other technology introduced in the past decade, many proptech companies are building products to cut agents out of the transaction process entirely,” Zeev wrote via email. “This is where HomeLight uniquely differs — and excels — from its competitors…They’re in the perfect position to revolutionize the industry.”

YouTravel.Me packs up $1M to match travelers with curated small group adventures

By Christine Hall

YouTravel.Me is the latest startup to grab some venture capital dollars as the travel industry gets back on its feet amid the global pandemic.

Over the past month, we’ve seen companies like Thatch raise $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper bring in $175 million, Wheel the World grab $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner, Elude raise $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry and Wanderlog bag $1.5 million for its free travel itinerary platform.

Today YouTravel.Me joins them after raising $1 million to continue developing its online platform designed for matching like-minded travelers to small-group adventures organized by travel experts. Starta VC led the round and was joined by Liqvest.com, Mission Gate and a group of individual investors like Bas Godska, general partner at Acrobator Ventures.

Olga Bortnikova, her husband Ivan Bortnikov and Evan Mikheev founded the company in Europe three years ago. The idea for the company came to Bortnikova and Bortnikov when a trip to China went awry after a tour operator sold them a package where excursions turned out to be trips to souvenir shops. One delayed flight and other mishaps along the way, and the pair went looking for better travel experiences and a way to share them with others. When they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they decided to create it themselves.

“It’s hard for adults to make friends, but when you are on a two-week trip with just 15 people in a group, you form a deep connection, share the same language and experiences,” Bortnikova told TechCrunch. “That’s our secret sauce — we want to make a connection.”

Much like a dating app, the YouTravel.Me’s algorithms connect travelers to trips and getaways based on their interests, values and past experiences. Matched individuals can connect with each via chat or voice, work with a travel expert and complete their reservations. They also have a BeGuide offering for travel experts to do research and create itineraries.

Since 2018, CEO Bortnikova said that YouTravel.Me has become the top travel marketplace in Eastern Europe, amassing over 15,900 tours in 130 countries and attracting over 10,000 travelers and 4,200 travel experts to the platform. It was starting to branch out to international sales in 2020 when the global pandemic hit.

“Sales and tourism crashed down, and we didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We found that we have more than 4,000 travel experts on our site and they feel lonely because the pandemic was a test of the industry. We understood that and built a community and educational product for them on how to build and scale their business.”

After a McKinsey study showed that adventure travel was recovering faster than other sectors of the industry, the founders decided to go after that market, becoming part of 500 Startups at the end of 2020. As a result, YouTravel.Me doubled its revenue while still a bootstrapped company, but wanted to enter the North American market.

The new funding will be deployed into marketing in the U.S., hiring and attracting more travel experts, technology and product development and increasing gross merchandise value to $2.7 million per month by the end of 2021, Bortnikov said. The goal is to grow the number of trips to 20,000 and its travel experts to 6,000 by the beginning of next year.

Godska, also an angel investor, learned about YouTravel.Me from a mutual friend. It happened that it was the same time that he was vacationing in Sri Lanka where he was one of very few tourists. Godska was previously involved in online travel before as part of Orbitz in Europe and in Russia selling tour packages before setting up a venture capital fund.

“I was sitting there in the jungle with a bad internet connection, and it sparked my interest,” he said. “When I spoke with them, I felt the innovation and this bright vibe of how they are doing this. It instantly attracted me to help support them. The whole curated thing is a very interesting move. Independent travelers that want to travel in groups are not touched much by the traditional sector.”

 

AON3D closes $11.5M Series A, partners with Astrobotic to send 3D-printed parts to the moon

By Aria Alamalhodaei

3D printing has garnered a lot of hype, much of it for good reason: the technology has unlocked new kinds of object shapes and geometries, and it uses materials that tend to be much lighter weight than their traditionally manufactured counterparts. But there remain high barriers to entry for many companies that either don’t have training in additive manufacturing, or that need to use materials that aren’t suitable for a traditional 3D printer.

3D printing startup AON3D wants to remove both of those barriers by increasing automation and, crucially, making more materials 3D-printable, and it has raised a $11.5 million Series A to get there.

The company manufactures industrial 3D printers for thermoplastics. What distinguishes AON3D’s platform is that it’s materials-agnostic, co-founder Kevin Han explained, meaning the printers are able to accept the more than 70,000 commercially available thermoplastic composites or even a custom blend. That’s the company’s real breakthrough, according to its founders: the ability to turn existing materials already used by clients, 3D-printing ready.

“The real big innovation beyond just the hardware cost is on the material side,” co-founder Randeep Singh explained to TechCrunch in a recent interview. “We can take in a new material from a big company […] we take that material that a customer may need to use for a specific reason, run a bunch of tests and turn it into a 3d printable process.”

By doing so, AON3D says it also opens up additive manufacturing to many more companies, who may want to pursue 3D printing but are unable to fundamentally change their materials to get there. With AON3D’s process, they don’t have to, Han explained.

The company was founded by Han, Singh, and Andrew Walker, who met while studying materials engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. AON3D was largely born out of what the trio saw as a gap in the market between 3D printers that are very expensive — up to hundreds of thousands per machine — and more consumer-geared printers that aren’t much more than a couple of hundred bucks.

They started off operating 3D printers as a service, before launching a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that ultimately garnered CAN $89,643 ($71,064) to bring the company’s debut 3D printer, the AON, to backers. Six years later, they’ve raised a total of $14.2 million in funding. This latest round was led by SineWave Ventures with participation from AlleyCorp and Y Combinator Continuity. BDC, EDC, Panache Ventures, MANA Ventures, Josh Richards & Griffin Johnson, and SV angels also participated.

Beyond selling printers and customized materials, AON3D also works with companies on an ongoing basis, giving training in additive manufacturing and ensure their printer parameters are adequate for the parts they want to make.

The company has found a number of clients in the aerospace industry, in part because of the advantages in weight — crucial for space companies, where the economics largely come down to payload size — as well as cost, time and the ability to use geometries that aren’t possible through injection molding or traditional manufacturing processes.

That includes Astrobotic Technology, a lunar exploration startup that is aiming to send a lander to the moon on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2022. Onboard the mission will be hundreds of parts printed using AON3D’s AON M2+ high-temperature printer, which will likely be the first additively manufactured parts to touch the lunar surface. These include bracketry components, including critical parts in the avionics boxes.

Image Credits: Astrobotic

“This [partnership] is giving Astrobotic the ability to use materials that they want to use very quickly,” Singh said. “Otherwise, they have really long lead time to get like material to work in a different process.” Injection molding using high-performance polymers, for example, can have a lead time of many months, he added, versus in a day or two using 3D printing.

Looking to the future, the company will be using the capital from this financing round to build a dedicated full-scale materials lab and to grow its team. The company also wants to fully automate the 3D printing process, using data coming out of the materials lab, so that any business can start using additive manufacturing for their products.

Stockeld Dreamery loves cheese so much that it raised $20M to make it out of legumes

By Christine Hall

Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.

The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.

Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.

“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”

Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.

Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”

The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.

Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.

“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.

Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.

Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.

Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.

The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.

“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”

Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.

“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”

Bright Cellars lands more funding to personalize its subscription-based wines

By Connie Loizos

Bright Cellars, a six-year-old subscription-based wine seller has, like many upstarts, evolved over time. While it once sent its club members third-party wines that fit their particular profiles, Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Bright Cellars says it’s now amassing enough data about its customers that it no longer sells wines made by other brands. Instead, while some of its “original” offerings are admittedly sold by other labels under different names, it is increasingly finding success by directing its winemaker partners to tweak the recipe, so to speak.

“We’re optimizing wine like you might optimize a more digital product,” says co-founder and CEO, Richard Yau, a San Francisco native whose startup entered into a regional accelerator program early on and stayed, though the company is now largely decentralized.

We talked earlier today with Yau about that shift, which investors are supporting with $11.2 million in Series B funding, led by Cleveland Avenue, with participation from earlier backers Revolution Ventures and Northwestern Mutual. (The company has now raised roughly $20 million altogether).

Yau also talked about industry trends that he’s seeing because of all that data collection.

TC: You’re building a portfolio of wines. What does that mean?

RY: We don’t own any land. We’re working primarily with suppliers [as do big companies like Gallo and Constellation], but at a larger scale than before, so we now get to shape what wines taste like and look like, and we can optimize across variables like how sweet should this wine be? How acidic? What do we want its color and brand and label to look like and which segment of our customers will really enjoy this wine the most?

TC: What’s one of your concoctions?

RY: We have a sparkling wine that’s produced in the Champagne method — not a Champagne wine; it’s a domestic wine — using grape varietals that no one uses for sparkling wine, and it’s one of the top-rated wines on our platform. Sparkling wine has been really good for us.

TC: How many subscribers do you have?

RY: We can’t share that, but we saw an acceleration in not just new subscribers throughout the pandemic but also in terms of seeing a larger share of [customers’] wallets going to D2C, and that impacted us pretty positively. Even as things eased up over the summer, we saw that people were cooking and eating at home more [and drinking wine].

TC: What’s the average price of a bottle of wine on the platform?

RY: $20 to $25.

TC: Where are your grape suppliers?

RY: A lot are on the West Coast, in Washington and California, but we also have grape suppliers internationally, including in South America and Europe.

TC: How many wines do you offer, and how long do you trial a wine?

RY: We’ve tested around 600, and at any given time, we’ll have 40 to 50 wines on the platform. We don’t stock everything forever; those that don’t do as well, we basically eliminate.

TC: A lot of D2C brands eventually branch into real-world locations. You aren’t doing that. Why not?

RY: It’s possible that we might at some point, but we like being D2C and it makes a lot of sense in a world where our members now work from home and are home to receive packages. It lines up with e-commerce trends in general. If you’re not buying your groceries at the store anymore, you aren’t buying wines at the store, either.

TC: From where are these bottles shipped?

RY: From a variety of places, but primarily from Santa Rosa [in the Bay Area].

TC: Have you seen the impact the weather is having on California winemakers, some of whom are now spraying sunscreen on their grapes to protect them?

RY: [Climate change] has certainly affected the wine industry. One of the fortunate things about us is we have flexibility in the suppliers we’re working with, so from a business-health perspective, we haven’t been as affected by that. Because a lot of our operations are in California, we did a couple of years ago have some interruptions with distribution where we weren’t able to ship some days; we were also impacted by warm temperatures. But fortunately, so far for this year, we haven’t had any operational or supply-chain disruptions.

TC: Have you been approached by one of legacy firms about a partnership or acquisition?

RY: We’ve had conversations, more in terms of partnerships because we have lots of data and can help them. For example, we can launch a new wine and get feedback almost like a focus group to figure out who likes what. We can split test two different blends for a wine and figure out which does better. That’s where conversations with legacy wine companies have happened.

TC: So they’d pay you for your data.

RY: We’re not opposed to selling data in the future, but we’ve approached it more like, here’s an opportunity to learn about how innovation works at a larger wine company. We don’t expect to be able to do what Constellation does well — with its large salesforce and distributors in every state — but what we can do in a complementary way is understand the consumer.

TC: What have you learned that might surprise outsiders?

RY: Petite sirah [offerings] do as well, if not better than, cabernet and pinot noir on the platform. Cab and pinot are fully 50 times the market size of petite sirah, but we see that our members really like it.

People also like merlot a lot more than they think — pretty much across all demographics. People like to hate merlot, but when we look at red blends that do well . . .

TC: What do people have against merlot?

RY: [Laughs.] Have you ever seen “Sideways?” That has something to do with it, still. Meanwhile, pinot noir remains popular, but people don’t like it as much as [other wine sellers] think.

Goodcall picks up $4M, Yelp partnership to answer merchant inbound calls

By Christine Hall

Even without staffing shortages, local merchants have difficulty answering calls while all hands are busy, and Goodcall wants to alleviate some of that burden from America’s 30 million small businesses.

Goodcall’s free cloud-based conversational platform leverages artificial intelligence to manage incoming phone calls and boost customer service for businesses of all sizes. Former Google executive Bob Summers left Google back in January, where he was working on Area 120 — an internal incubator program for experimental projects — to start Goodcall after recognizing the call problem, noting that in fact 60% of the calls that come into merchants go unanswered.

“It’s frustrating for you and for the person calling,” Summers told TechCrunch. “Every missed call is a lost opportunity.”

Goodcall announced its launch Wednesday with $4 million in seed funding led by strategic investors Neo, Foothill Ventures, Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Verissimo Ventures and VSC Ventures, as well as angel investors including Harry Hurst, founder and co-CEO of Pipe.com, and Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff.

Goodcall mobile agent. Image Credits: Goodcall

Restaurants, shops and merchants can set up on Goodcall in a matter of minutes and even establish a local phone number to free up an owner’s mobile number from becoming the business’ main line. The service is initially deployed in English and the company has plans to operate in Spanish, French and Hindi by 2022.

Merchants can choose from six different assistant voices and monitor the call logs and what the calls were about. Goodcall can also capture consumer sentiment, Summers said.

The company offers three options, including its freemium service for solopreneurs and business owners, which includes up to 500 minutes per month of Goodcall services for a single phone line. Up to five additional locations and five staff members costs $19 per month for the Pro level, or the Premium level provides unlimited locations and staff for $49 per month.

During the company’s beta period, Goodcall was processing several thousands of calls per month. The new funding will be used to continue to offer the free service, hire engineers and continue product development.

In addition to the funding round, Goodcall is unveiling a partnership with Yelp to tap into its database of local businesses so that those owners and managers can easily deploy Goodcall. Yelp data shows that more than 500,000 businesses opened during the pandemic. The company pulls in from Yelp a merchant’s open hours, location, if they offer Wi-Fi and even their COVID policy.

“We are partnering with Yelp, which has the best data on small businesses, and other large distribution channels to get our product to market,” Summers said. “We are bringing technology into an industry that hasn’t innovated since the 1980s and democratizing conversational AI for small businesses that are the main driver of job creation, and we want to help them grow.”

 

Insurify, a ‘virtual insurance agent,’ raises $100M Series B

By Mary Ann Azevedo

How many of us have not switched insurance carriers because we don’t want to deal with the hassle of comparison shopping?

A lot, I’d bet.

Today, Insurify, a startup that wants to help people make it easier to get better rates on home, auto and life insurance, announced that it has closed $100 million in an “oversubscribed” Series B funding round led by Motive Partners.

Existing backers Viola FinTech, MassMutual Ventures, Nationwide, Hearst Ventures and Moneta VC also put money in the round, as well as new investors Viola Growth and Fort Ross Ventures. With the new financing, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Insurify has now raised a total of $128 million since its 2013 inception. The company declined to disclose the valuation at which the money was raised.

Since we last covered Insurify, the startup has seen some impressive growth. For example, it has seen its new and recurring revenue increase by “6x” since it closed its Series A funding in the 2019 fourth quarter. Over the last three years, Insurify has achieved a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 151%, according to co-founder and CEO Snejina Zacharia. It has also seen consistent “2.5x” year-over-year revenue growth, she said.

Insurify has built a machine learning-based virtual insurance agent that integrates with more than 100 carriers to digitize — and personalize — the insurance shopping experience. There are others in the insurtech space, but none that we know of currently tackling home, auto and life insurance. For example, Jerry, which has raised capital twice this year, is focused mostly on auto insurance, although it does have a home product. The Zebra, which became a unicorn this year, started out as a site for people looking for auto insurance via its real-time quote comparison tool. Over time, it has also evolved to offer homeowners insurance with the goal of eventually branching out into renters and life insurance. But it too is mostly focused on auto.

Zacharia said that since Insurify’s Series A funding, it has expanded its home insurance marketplace, deepened its carrier integrations to provide users an “instant” purchase experience and launched its first two embedded insurance products through partnerships with Toyota Insurance Management Solutions and Nationwide (the latter of which also participated in the Series B funding round).

Image Credits: Insurify

Last year, when ShyScanner had to lay off staff, Insurify scooped up much of its engineering team and established an office in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Zacharia, a former Gartner executive, was inspired to start the company after she was involved in a minor car accident while getting her MBA at MIT. The accident led to a spike in her insurance premium and Zacharia was frustrated by the “complex and cumbersome” experience of car insurance shopping. She teamed up with CTO Tod Kiryazov to build Insurify, which the pair describe as a virtual insurance agent that offers real-time quotes.

“We decided to build the most trusted virtual insurance agent in the industry that allows for customers to easily search, compare and buy fully digitally — directly from their mobile phone, or desktop, and really get a very smart, personalized experience based on their unique preferences,” Zacharia told TechCrunch. “We leverage artificial intelligence to be able to make recommendations on both coverage as well as carrier selection.”

Notably, Insurify is also a fully licensed agent that takes over the fulfillment and servicing of the policies. Since the company is mostly working as an insurance agent, it gets paid new and renewed commission. So while it’s not a SaaS business, its embedded insurance offerings have SaaS-like monetization.

“Our goal is to provide an experience for the end consumer that allows them to service and manage all of their policies in one place, digitally,” Zacharia said. “We think that the data recommendations that the platform provides can really remove most of the friction that currently exists in the shopping experience.”

Insurify plans to use its fresh capital to continue to expand its operations and accelerate its growth plans. It also, naturally, wants to add to its 125-person team.

“We want to build into our API integrations so customers can receive real-time direct quotes with better personalization and a more tailored experience,” Kiryazov said. “We also want to identify more embedded insurance opportunities and expand the product functionality.”

The company also down the line wants to expand into other verticals such as pet insurance, for example.

Insurify intends to use the money in part to build brand awareness, potentially through TV advertising.

“Almost half of our revenue comes from self-directed traffic,” Zacharia said. “So we want to explore more inorganic growth.”

James “Jim” O’Neill, founding partner at Motive Partners and partner Andy Rear point out that online purchasing now accounts for almost all of the growth in U.S. auto insurance. 

“The lesson from other markets which have been through this transition is that customers prefer choice, presented as a simple menu of products and prices from different insurers, and a straightforward online purchasing process,” they wrote via email. “The U.S. auto market is huge: even a slow transition to online means a massive opportunity for Insurify.”

In conducting their due diligence, the pair said they were impressed with how the startup is building a business model “that works for customers, insurers and white-label partners.”

Harel Beit-On, founder and general partner at Viola Growth, believes that the quantum leap in e-commerce due to COVID-19 will completely transform the buying experience in almost every sector, including insurance.

“It is time to bring the frictionless purchasing experience that customers expect to the insurance space as well,” she said. “Following our fintech fund’s recent investment in the company, we watched Insurify’s immense growth, excellent execution with customer acquisition and building a brand consumers trust.”

Humane, a stealthy hardware and software startup co-founded by an ex-Apple designer and engineer, raises $100M

By Ingrid Lunden

A stealthy startup co-founded by a former senior designer from Apple and one of its ex-senior software engineers has picked up a significant round funding to build out its business. Humane, which has ambitions to build a new class of consumer devices and technologies that stem from “a genuine collaboration of design and engineering” that will represent “the next shift between humans and computing”, has raised $100 million.

This is a Series B, and it’s coming from some very high profile backers. Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with SoftBank Group, BOND, Forerunner Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also participating. Other investors in this Series B include Sam Altman, Lachy Groom, Kindred Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Valia Ventures, NEXT VENTŪRES, Plexo Capital and the legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Humane has been around actually since 2017, but it closed/filed its Series A only last year: $30 million in September 2020 at a $150 million valuation, according to PitchBook. Previous to that, it had raised just under $12 million, with many of the investors in this current round backing Humane in those earlier fundraises, too.

Valuation with this Series B is not being disclosed, the company confirmed to me.

Given that Humane has not yet released any products, nor has said much at all about what it has up its sleeve; and given that hardware in general presents a lot of unique challenges and therefore is often seen as a risky bet (that old “hardware is hard” chestnut), you might be wondering how Humane, still in stealth, has attracted these backers.

Some of that attention possibly stems from the fact that the two co-founders, husband-and-wife team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, are something of icons in their own right. Bongiorno, who is Humane’s CEO, had been the software engineering director at Apple. Chaudhri, who is Humane’s chairman and president, is Apple’s former director of design, where he worked for 20 years on some of its most seminal products — the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac. Both have dozens of patents credited to them from their time there, and they have picked up a few since then, too.

Those latest patents — plus the very extensive list of job openings listed on Humane’s otherwise quite sparse site — might be the closest clues we have for what the pair and their startup might be building.

One patent is for a “Wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform with laser projection system”; another is for a “System and apparatus for fertility and hormonal cycle awareness.”

Meanwhile, the company currently has nearly 50 job openings listed, including engineers with camera and computer vision experience, hardware engineers, designers, and security experts, among many others. (One sign of where all that funding will be going.) There is already an impressive team of about 60 people the company, which is another detail that attracted investors.

“The caliber of individuals working at Humane is incredibly impressive,” said Chase Coleman, Partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “These are people who have built and shipped transformative products to billions of people around the world. What they are building is groundbreaking with the potential to become a standard for computing going forward.”

I’ve asked for more details on the company’s product roadmap and ethos behind the company, and who its customers might potentially be: other firms for whom it designs products, or end users directly?

For now, Bongiorno and Chaudhri seem to hint that part of what has motivated them to start this business was to reimagine what role technology might play in the next wave of innovation. It’s a question that many ask, but not many try to actually invest in finding the answer. For that alone, it’s worth watching Humane (if Humane lets us, that is: it’s still very much in stealth) to see what it does next.

“Humane is a place where people can truly innovate through a genuine collaboration of design and engineering,” the co-founders said in a joint statement. “We are an experience company that creates products for the benefit of people, crafting technology that puts people first — a more personal technology that goes beyond what we know today. We’re all waiting for something new, something that goes beyond the information age that we have all been living with. At Humane, we’re building the devices and the platform for what we call the intelligence age. We are committed to building a different type of company, founded on our values of trust, truth and joy. With the support of our partners, we will continue to scale the team with individuals who not only share our passion for revolutionizing the way we interact with computing, but also for how we build.”

Update: After publishing, I got a little more from Humane about its plans. Its aim is to build “technology that improves the human experience and is born of good intentions; products that put us back in touch with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; and experiences that are built on trust, with interactions that feel magical and bring joy.” It’s not a whole lot to go on, but more generally it’s an approach that seems to want to step away from the cycle we’re on today, and be more mindful and thoughtful. If they can execute on this, while still building rather than wholesale rejecting technology, they might be on to something.

Anima, a no-code tool that turns designs into code, raises $10 million Series A

By Jordan Crook

Anima, the YC-backed platform that turns designs into code, has today announced the close of a $10 million Series A financing. The round was led by MizMaa Ventures with participation from INcapital and Hetz Ventures.

We’ve been following Anima, which was bootstrapped until last year, for a while now.

The startup indexes on several trending ingredients right now, including a bottoms-up distribution approach, and the popularity of low/no code.

Here’s how it works.

Most developers spend a tremendous amount of time turning design elements into code. Unfortunately, this piece of their job isn’t nearly as exciting as writing the code that actually makes the app, website, platform, etc. work.

With Anima, designers can upload their element or design from Figma and it will be automatically transformed into high-quality code, with support for React, Vue.js, HTML, CSS and Sass. Designers can also create prototypes of their work right within Anima, so that the system can process not only how something looks statically but how the flow should feel.

Co-founders Avishay and Michal Cohen and Or Arbel (a name you may recognize from the glory days of Yo!) have a clear vision on how to use the funding. Alongside tripling the size of the team, they plan to build integrations with platforms like Figma, Sketch, etc. and Github so that Anima itself can effectively get out of the way, allowing designers and developers to hand off these elements in the platforms where they already live.

In terms of distribution, Anima is making the most of their bottoms-up approach. Any designer can sign up for free to use Anima, and right now there are more than 600,000 users registered with the platform. That’s compared with roughly 300,000 users in October of 2020. Avishay Cohen clarified that active users are growing, too, with 80,000 monthly active users on the platform now compared with 10,000 a year ago.

The Cohens went on to explain that more than 5 percent of free users convert into paying users, and that 15 percent of paying accounts expand into teams organically within the first one to two months of becoming a paid user. The startup is already getting requests for enterprise accounts, which the cofounders describe as the next phase of the business on the back of this new funding.

Arbel told TechCrunch that the greatest challenge during this time has been hiring in a remote world, and that the answer to that, for Anima, has been looking at talent on a global scale. The Cohens added that with that hyperscaling, growing the team from four to 30 in the year and continuing to hire, it is challenging to maintain and foster company culture.

General Catalyst, Abstract back Wanderlog’s $1.5M round for collaborative travel

By Christine Hall

Twin brothers Harry and Peter Yu grew up traveling all over, an aspect of their lives that continued even into their careers. What they didn’t enjoy was figuring out all the logistics, which has become more difficult during the pandemic: vacations that could be taken quickly now require more planning and even reservations.

“People travel differently, but the common denominator is that everyone uses some kind of document to plan and share their trip information,” Harry Yu told TechCrunch. “We saw a need for something that is better than spreadsheets and ‘copy-and paste.’ ”

So they launched Bay Area-based Wanderlog in 2019 to enable users to gather and record their travel plans. The free itinerary maker and road trip planner takes the best parts of Google Docs and Maps and enables users to import the information and map out the trip. You can even add lists of places you’d like to visit, and Wanderlog will recommend the best way to get there. Reservations can also be added, Peter Yu said.

Wanderlog demo. Image Credits: Wanderlog

The company announced Wednesday it raised $1.5 million in seed funding from General Catalyst and Abstract Ventures.

“Wanderlog has built a product that has a unique understanding of how users plan trips and share their experiences — it’s no surprise that people love using it,” General Catalyst’s Niko Bonatsos said via email. “General Catalyst is proud to invest in Wanderlog as they change the way we travel together, and we’re excited by the growth Peter, Harry and the entire Wanderlog team have achieved.”

The company, which was part of Y Combinator’s 2019 cohort, plans to use the new funding to expand its web and mobile app features, including offering restaurant recommendations, based on Google and Yelp reviews, for those who don’t want to do a bunch of searching and reading reviews.

The founders declined to share growth metrics, but said the platform is already facilitating thousands of trips per week. Customers are already sharing with the founders that the app is good for communication among a large group, where everyone can see what the plans are and discuss them, Harry Yu said. In addition, they just launched a subscription service and are seeing good early metrics.

Wanderlog is among a number of travel startups attracting venture capital dollars as travel restrictions have begun to ease amid the pandemic. For example, just over the past month companies like Thatch raised $3 million for its platform aimed at travel creators, travel tech company Hopper brought in $175 million, Wheel the World grabbed $2 million for its disability-friendly vacation planner and Elude raised $2.1 million to bring spontaneous travel back to a hard-hit industry.

 

Oviva grabs $80M for app-delivered healthy eating programs

By Natasha Lomas

UK startup Oviva, which sells a digital support offering, including for Type 2 diabetes treatment, dispensing personalized diet and lifestyle advice via apps to allow more people to be able to access support, has closed $80 million in Series C funding — bringing its total raised to date to $115M.

The raise, which Oviva says will be used to scale up after a “fantastic year” of growth for the health tech business, is co-led by Sofina and Temasek, alongside existing investors AlbionVC, Earlybird, Eight Roads Ventures, F-Prime Capital, MTIP, plus several angels.

Underpinning that growth is the fact wealthy Western nations continue to see rising rates of obesity and other health conditions like Type 2 diabetes (which can be linked to poor diet and lack of exercise). While more attention is generally being paid to the notion of preventative — rather than reactive — healthcare, to manage the rising costs of service delivery.

Lifestyle management to help control weight and linked health conditions (like diabetes) is where Oviva comes in: It’s built a blended support offering that combines personalized care (provided by healthcare professionals) with digital tools for patients that help them do things like track what they’re eating, access support and chart their progress towards individual health goals.

It can point to 23 peer-reviewed publications to back up its approach — saying key results show an average of 6.8% weight loss at 6 months for those living with obesity; while, in its specialist programs, it says 53% of patients achieve remission of their type 2 diabetes at 12 months.

Oviva typically sells its digitally delivered support programs direct to health insurance companies (or publicly funded health services) — who then provide (or refer) the service to their customers/patients. Its programs are currently available in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France — but expanding access is one of the goals for the Series C.

“We will expand to European markets where the health system reimburses the diet and lifestyle change we offer, especially those with specific pathways for digital reimbursement,” Oviva tells TechCrunch. “Encouragingly, more healthcare systems have been opening up specific routes for such digital reimbursement, e.g., Germany for DiGAs or Belgium just in the last months.”

So far, the startup has treated 200,000 people but the addressable market is clearly huge — not least as European populations age — with Oviva suggesting more than 300 million people live with “health challenges” that are either triggered by poor diet or can be optimised through personalised dietary changes. Moreover, it suggests, only “a small fraction” is currently being offered digital care.

To date, Oviva has built up 5,000+ partnerships with health systems, insurers and doctors as it looks to push for further scale by making its technology more accessible to a wider range of people. In the past year it says it’s “more than doubled” both people treated and revenue earned.

Its goal is for the Series C funding is to reach “millions” of people across Europe who need support because they’re suffering from poor health linked to diet and lifestyle.

As part of the scale up plan it will also be growing its team to 800 by the end of 2022, it adds.

On digital vs face-to-face care — setting aside the potential cost savings associated with digital delivery — it says studies show the “most striking outcome benefits” are around uptake and completion rates, noting: “We have consistently shown uptake rates above 70% and high completion rates of around 80%, even in groups considered harder to reach such as working age populations or minority ethnic groups. This compares to uptake and completion rates of less than 50% for most face-to-face services.”

Asked about competition, Oviva names Liva Healthcare and Second Nature as its closest competitors in the region.

“WW (formally Weight Watchers) also competes with a digital solution in some markets where they can access reimbursement,” it adds. “There are many others that try to access this group with new methods, but are not reimbursed or are wellness solutions. Noom competes as a solution for self-paying consumers in Europe, as many other apps. But, in our view, that is a separate market from the reimbursed medical one.”

As well as using the Series C funding to bolster its presence in existing markets and target and scale into new ones, Oviva says it may look to further grow the business via M&A opportunities.

“In expanding to new countries, we are open to both building new organisations from the ground up or acquiring existing businesses with a strong medical network where we see that our technology can be leveraged for better patient care and value creation,” it told us on that.

 

Tribe and Arkam back Jar app to help millions in India start their savings journey

By Manish Singh

Even as hundreds of millions of people in India have a bank account, only a tiny fraction of this population invests in any financial instrument.

Fewer than 30 million people invest in mutual funds or stocks, for instance. In recent years, a handful of startups have made it easier for users — especially the millennials — to invest, but the figure has largely remained stagnant.

Now, an Indian startup believes that it has found the solution to tackle this challenge — and is already seeing good early traction.

Nishchay AG, former director of mobility startup Bounce, and Misbah Ashraf, co-founder of MarsPlay (sold to Foxy), founded Jar earlier this year.

The startup’s eponymous six-month-old Android app enables users to start their savings journey for as little as 1 Indian rupee.

Users on Jar can invest in multiple ways and get started within seconds. The app works with Paytm (PhonePe support is in the works) to set up a recurring payment. (The startup is the first to use UPI 2.0’s recurring payment support.) They can set up any amount between 1 Indian rupee to 500 for daily investments.

The Jar app can also glean users’ text messages and save a tiny amount based on each monetary transaction they do. So, for instance, if a user has spent 31 rupees in a transaction, the Jar app rounds that up to the nearest tenth figure (40, in this case) and saves nine rupees. Users can also manually open the app and spend any amount they wish to invest.

Once users have saved some money in Jar, the app then invests that into digital gold.

The startup is using gold investment because people in the South Asian market already have an immense trust in this asset class.

India has a unique fascination for gold. From rural farmers to urban working class, nearly everyone stashes the yellow metal and flaunts jewelry at weddings.

Indian households are estimated to have a stash of over 25,000 tons of the precious metal whose value today is about half of the country’s nominal GDP. Such is the demand for gold in India that the South Asian nation is also one of the world’s largest importers of this precious metal.

Jar’s Android app (Image Credits: Jar)

“When you’re thinking about bringing the next 500 million people to institutional savings and investments, the onus is on us to educate them on the efficacies of the other instruments that are in the market,” said Nishchay.

“We want to give them the instrument they trust the most, which is gold,” he said. The startup plans to eventually offer several more investment opportunities, he said.

The founders met several years ago when they were exploring if MarsPlay and Bounce could have any synergies. They stayed in touch and, last year during one of their many conversations, realized that neither of them knew much about investments.

“That’s when the dots started to connect,” said Ashraf, drawing stories from his childhood. “I come from a small town in Bihar called Bihar Sharif. During my childhood days, I saw my family deeply troubled with debt because of poor financial decisions and no savings,” he said.

“We both understand what a typical middle class family goes through. Someone who comes from this background never had any means in the past but their aspirations are never-ending. So when you start earning, you immediately start to spend it all,” said Nishchay.

“The market needs products that will help them get started,” he said.

That idea, which is similar to Acorn and Stash’s play in the U.S. market, is beginning to make inroads. The app has already amassed about half a million downloads, the founders said. Investors have taken notice, too.

On Wednesday, Jar announced it has raised $4.5 million from a clutch of high-profile investors, including Arkam Ventures, Tribe Capital, WEH Ventures, and angels including Kunal Shah (founder of CRED), Shaan Puri (formerly with Twitch), Ali Moiz (founder of Stonks), Howard Lindzon (founder of Social Leverage), Vivekananda Hallekere (co-founder of Bounce), Alvin Tse (of Xiaomi) and Kunal Khattar (managing partner at AdvantEdge).

“Over 400 million Indians are about to embrace digital financial services for the first time in their lives. Jar has built an app that is poised to help them — with several intuitive ways including gamification — start their investment journey. We love the speed at which the team has been executing and how fast they are growing each week,” said Arjun Sethi, co-founder of Tribe Capital, in a statement.

Transactions and AUM on the Jar app are surging 350% each month, said Nishchay. The startup plans to broaden its product offerings in the coming days, he said.

UK-based Heroes raises $200M to buy up more Amazon merchants for its roll-up play

By Ingrid Lunden

Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like babies, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.

Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going toward making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.

Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.

Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s marketplace, but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.

Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies. 

What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the U.K., and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.

“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”

Image Credits: Heroes

Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.

Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), HeydayThe Razor GroupBrandedSellerXBerlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia. 

The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.

“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with COVID-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a ‘perfect storm’ to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”

In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses. 

Corporate venture capital follows the same trend as other VC markets: Up

By Anna Heim

As the global market for startup investing presses to new heights in terms of dollars invested this year, and deal volume ticks up in several regions, corporations are diving into the action.

Data from CB Insights and Stryber indicate that corporate investors are taking part in deals worth more than ever, even if corporate venture capital (CVC) deal activity is not up uniformly around the world.


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In a sense, it’s not surprising that CVCs are seeing the deals that they participate in rising in size — the global venture capital market has trended toward larger deals and more dollars for some time now. But questions lie inside the eye-popping figures: How are corporate investors adapting to a more rapid-fire and expensive venture capital market? We also wanted to know if CVCs are shaking up their deal sourcing, and whether the classic corporate venture tension between strategic investing and deploying capital for financial return is seeing a focus mix shift.

To help us understand the data we have at our fingertips, The Exchange reached out to M12’s Matt Goldstein, Sony Innovation Fund’s Gen Tsuchikawa and WIND VenturesBrian Walsh. (TechCrunch last covered CVC outfit WIND Ventures here.)

Let’s talk data and then dig into the nuance behind the numbers.

A boom in deal value

Precisely measuring CVC activity is interestingly difficult. When we discuss the value of venture capital deals, for example, what counts and what doesn’t is a matter of taste. For example, how to treat the SoftBank Vision Fund. Do deals that it leads that include venture capital participation count toward larger VC activity for a given period of time? What about investments led by crossover funds?

No matter what you choose, aggregate venture capital data will always include dollars invested by non-venture entities. So you do the best you can. CVC has the same problem, amplified. Because CVCs are often participatory to deals, instead of leading them, especially in the later stages of startup investing today, tallying concrete corporate venture investment is difficult. So we proceed in the same manner as we do with aggregate venture data counting, including deals that a particular investor type participated in.

Perfect, no. But it’s consistent, which is what we likely care about more. All that’s to say that when we observe the following deal and dollar data, CB Insights notes plainly that for its purposes, “‘CVC-backed funding’ and ‘CVC-backed deals’ refer to corporate venture capital participation in these funding rounds.”

Fair enough. Per CB Insights’ H1 2021 CVC report, CVCs participated in $78.7 billion in funding activity in the first half of 2021, a record for a half-year period. That dollar figure was derived from some 2,099 deals around the world. Precisely how strong those figures are is not clear from their absolute scale.

Stonehenge Technology Labs bags $2M, gives CPG companies one-touch access to metrics

By Christine Hall

Stonehenge Technology Labs wants consumer packaged goods companies to gain meaningful use from all of the data they collect. It announced $2 million in seed funding for its STOPWATCH commerce enhancement software.

The round was led by Irish Angels, with participation from Bread and Butter Ventures, Gaingels, Angeles Investors, Bonfire Ventures and Red Tail Venture Capital.

CEO Meagan Kinmonth Bowman founded the Arkansas-based company in 2019 after working at Hallmark, where she was tasked with the digital transformation of the company.

“This was not a consequence of them not being good marketers or connected to mom, but they didn’t have the technology to connect their back end with retailers like Amazon, Walmart or Hobby Lobby,” she told TechCrunch. “There are so many smart people building products to connect with consumers. The challenge is the big guys are doing things the same way and not thinking like the 13-year-olds on social media that are actually winning the space.”

Kinmonth Bowman and her team recognized that there was a missing middle layer connecting the world of dotcom with brick and mortar. If the middle layer could be applied to the enterprise resource plans and integrate public and private data feeds, a company could be just as profitable online as it could be in traditional retail, she said.

Stonehenge’s answer to that is STOPWATCH, which takes in over 100 million rows of data per workspace per day, analyzes the data points, adds real-time alerts and provides the right data to the right people at the right time.

Dan Rossignol, a B2B SaaS investor, said the CPG world is also about consumerizing our life, and the global pandemic showed that even at home, people could have a productive day and business. Rossignol likes to invest in underestimated founders and saw in Stonehenge a company that is getting CPGs out from underneath antiquated technologies.

“What Meagan and her team are doing is really interesting,” he added. “At this stage, it is all about the people, and the ability to bet on doing something larger.”

Kinmonth Bowman said she had the opportunity to base the company in Silicon Valley, but chose Bentonville, Arkansas instead to be closer to the more than 1,000 CPG companies based there that she felt were the prime customer base for STOPWATCH.

The platform was originally created as a subsidiary of a consulting company, but in 2018, one of their clients told them they just wanted the software rather than also paying for the consulting piece. The business was split, and Stonehenge went underground for eight months to make a software product specifically for the client.

Kinmonth Bowman admits the technology itself is not that sexy — it is using exact transfer loads to extract data from hundreds of systems into a “lake house,” and then siloing it by retailer and other factors and then presenting the data in different ways. For example, the CEO will want different metrics than product teams.

Over the past year, the company has doubled its revenue and also doubled the amount of contracts. It already counts multiple Fortune 100 companies and emerging brands as some of its early users and plans to use the new funding to hire a sales team and go after some strategic relationships.

Stonehenge is also working on putting together a diverse workforce that mimics the users of the software, Kinmonth Bowman said. One of the challenges has been to get unique talent to move to Arkansas, but she said it is one she is eager to take on.

Meanwhile, Brett Brohl, managing partner at Bread and Butter Ventures, said the Stonehenge team “is just crazy enough, smart and driven” to build something great.

“All of the biggest companies have been around for a long time, but not a lot of large organizations have done a good job digitizing their businesses,” he said. “Even pre-COVID, they were building fill-in-the-blank digital transformations, but COVID accelerated technology and hit a lot of companies in the face. That was made more obvious to end consumers, which puts more pressure on companies to understand the need, which is good for STOPWATCH. It went from paper to Excel spreadsheets to the next cloud modification. The time is right for the next leap and how to use data.”

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