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Today — April 22nd 2021Your RSS feeds

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Pincince, the market is clearly underserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Budweiser brew eggs and will Post cereal make meat?

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Kirsten Korosec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casa Blanca raises $2.6M to build the ‘Bumble for real estate’

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Casa Blanca, which aims to develop a “Bumble-like app” for finding a home, has raised $2.6 million in seed funding.

Co-founder and CEO Hannah Bomze got her real estate license at the age of 18 and worked at Compass and  Douglas Elliman Real Estate before launching Casa Blanca last year.

She launched the app last October with the goal of matching home buyers and renters with homes using an in-app matchmaking algorithm combined with “expert agents.” Buyers get up to 1% of home purchases back at closing. Similar to dating apps, Casa Blanca’s app is powered by a simple swipe left or right.

Samuel Ben-Avraham, a partner and early investor of Kith and an early investor in WeWork, led the round for Casa Blanca, bringing its total raise to date to $4.1 million.

The New York-based startup recently launched in the Colorado market and has seen some impressive traction in a short amount of time. 

Since launching the app in October, Casa Blance has “made more than $100M in sales” and is projected to reach $280 million this year between New York and its Denver launch. 

Bomze said the app experience will be customized for each city with the goal of creating a personalized experience for each user. Casa Blanca claims to streamline and sort listings based on user preferences and lifestyle priorities.

Image Credits: Casa Blanca

“People love that there is one place to book, manage feedback, schedule and communicate with a branded agent for one cohesive experience,” Bomze said. “We have a breadth of users from first time buyers to people using our platform for $15 million listings.”

Unlike competitors, Casa Blanca applies to a direct-to-consumer model, she pointed out.

“While our agents are an integral part of the company, they are not responsible for bringing in business and have more organizational support, which allows them to focus on the individual more and creates a better end-to-end experience for the consumer,” Bomze said.

Casa Blanca currently has over 38 agents in NYC and Colorado, compared to about 15 at this time last year.

“We are in a growth phase and finding a unique opportunity in this climate, in particular, because there are many women exploring new, more flexible job opportunities,” Bomze noted. 

The company plans to use its new capital to continue expanding into new markets, nationally and globally; enhancingits technology and scaling.

“As we continue to grow in new markets, the app experience will be curated to each city – for example, in Colorado you can edit your preferences based on access to ski areas – to make sure we’re offering a personalized experience for each user,” Bomze said.

C2i, a genomics SaaS product to detect traces of cancer, raises $100M Series B

By Marcella McCarthy

If you or a loved one has ever undergone a tumor removal as part of cancer treatment, you’re likely familiar with the period of uncertainty and fear that follows. Will the cancer return, and if so, will the doctors catch it at an early enough stage? C2i Genomics has developed software that’s 100x more sensitive in detecting residual disease, and investors are pouncing on the potential. Today, C2i announced a $100 million Series B led by Casdin Capital. 

“The biggest question in cancer treatment is, ‘Is it working?’ Some patients are getting treatment they don’t benefit from and they are suffering the side effects while other patients are not getting the treatment they need,” said Asaf Zviran, co-founder and CEO of C2i Genomics in an interview.

Historically, the main approach to cancer detection post-surgery has been through the use of MRI or X-ray, but neither of those methods gets super accurate until the cancer progresses to a certain point. As a result, a patient’s cancer may return, but it may be a while before doctors are able to catch it.

Using C2i’s technology, doctors can order a liquid biopsy, which is essentially a blood draw that looks for DNA. From there they can sequence the entire genome and upload it to the C2i platform. The software then looks at the sequence and identifies faint patterns that indicate the presence of cancer, and can inform if it’s growing or shrinking.

“C2i is basically providing the software that allows the detection and monitoring of cancer to a global scale. Every lab with a sequencing machine can process samples, upload to the C2i platform and provide detection and monitoring to the patient,” Zviran told TechCrunch.

C2i Genomics’ solution is based on research performed at the New York Genome Center (NYGC) and Weill Cornell Medicine (WCM) by Dr. Zviran, along with Dr. Dan Landau, faculty member at the NYGC and assistant professor of medicine at WCM, who serves as scientific co-founder and member of C2i’s scientific advisory board. The research and findings have been published in the medical journal, Nature Medicine.

While the product is not FDA-approved yet, it’s already being used in clinical research and drug development research at NYU Langone Health, the National Cancer Center of Singapore, Aarhus University Hospital and Lausanne University Hospital.

When and if approved, New York-based C2i has the potential to drastically change cancer treatment, including in the areas of organ preservation. For example, some people have functional organs, such as the bladder or rectum, removed to prevent cancer from returning, leaving them disabled. But what if the unnecessary surgeries could be avoided? That’s one goal that Zviran and his team have their minds set on achieving.

For Zviran, this story is personal. 

“I started my career very far from cancer and biology, and at the age of 28 I was diagnosed with cancer and I went for surgery and radiation. My father and then both of my in-laws were also diagnosed, and they didn’t survive,” he said.

Zviran, who today has a PhD in molecular biology, was previously an engineer with the Israeli Defense Force and some private companies. “As an engineer, looking into this experience, it was very alarming to me about the uncertainty on both the patients’ and physicians’ side,” he said.

This round of funding will be used to accelerate clinical development and commercialization of the company’s C2-Intelligence Platform. Other investors that participated in the round include NFX, Duquesne Family Office, Section 32 (Singapore), iGlobe Partners and Driehaus Capital.

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

By Zack Whittaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Bird, Lime and VeoRide selected for NYC e-scooter pilot

By Rebecca Bellan

Lime, Bird and VeoRide have scored coveted permits to New York City’s first e-scooter pilot.

The New York City Department of Transportation, which originally released a request for proposals in October for the pilot that was meant to start in early March, made its selections public Wednesday. The three companies are expected to begin operations in the Bronx by early summer with 1,000 electric scooters each.

“After a competitive selection process, Bird, Lime and Veo unveil e-scooter models and pricing plans that will allow most rides for under $5,” said NYC DOT in a statement. “New bicycle lanes planned for pilot zone over the next two years will also enhance e-scooter mobility and safety.” 

Micromobility operators have been competing fiercely to win a dwindling number of city concessions. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere, says Frank Sinatra, and winning the Big Apple plays a massive role in determining which operators will survive as the rideshare industry consolidates under a few powerful players. 

Bird is already in over 100 cities around the United States, Europe and the Middle East, while Lime is ubiquitous with around 130 cities in the U.S., Europe, the Middle East and Australia under its belt. This win calcifies the clout the two already have in the industry. Chicago-based VeoRide is arguably the underdog of the trio with service around 20 U.S. cities, so getting the chance to operate in New York could be a game-changer for the already profitable company. This is especially true in a city that’s simultaneously still wary of coronavirus and eager to get out and catch up with friends and family this summer. 

“This e-scooter pilot program couldn’t come at a better time, as New York focuses on providing low-cost transportation options that allow residents to travel socially-distanced in the open air,” Lime CEO Wayne Ting said in a statement. “In welcoming a new mode of transportation to its streets, New York demonstrates its dedication to shepherding a sustainable recovery from COVID-19 — one that isn’t hampered by the crippling traffic congestion that depresses growth.”

Superpedestrian and Spin are among the companies that weren’t selected for participation in the program. Superpedestrian CEO Assaf Biderman said in a statement that the company was proud of the proposal it presented. “We know this is just a beginning, and there are more communities in every corner of the city that are calling out for new, safe and sustainable transportation options–something we can deliver,” he said.

Despite general fanfare, there may be a limit to how far operations can spread beyond the Bronx in the future. The first phase of the pilot covers neighborhoods in the East Bronx spanning from Eastchester to Van Nest; the second phase extends south to Soundview and east to Edgewater with another 4,000 to 6,000 scooters. The DOT said it chose these geographic boundaries to reach transit deserts that are unserved by existing bike share programs.

That last bit is important to note. Lyft-owned Citi Bike has a monopoly over shared micromobilty in NYC, with bike docks all over Manhattan and in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the South Bronx. While 2018 legislation that allowed for the introduction of dockless e-scooters in NYC aims to “prioritize” hoods with no access to Citi Bike, the pilot zones were designed specifically to avoid overlap with Bronx neighborhoods targeted by the docked bike share’s expansion plans. 

What to expect from the e-scooter pilot in the Bronx

Aside from operating in alignment with NYC’s Vision Zero and equity goals, the DOT chose companies that would play ball with the city’s strong enforcement mechanisms, and that very much includes managing sidewalk clutter with dedicated parking corrals and fleet management software, a DOT spokesperson told TechCrunch. 

Lime intends to combine its corral and lock-to parking strategies for the first time in NYC to ensure its Gen 3 and Gen 4 scooters don’t become a bother to the community. It’ll also rely on its backend fleet management software and a “tidy crew” that will patrol the pilot area to rebalance scooters. 

“At high traffic locations like transit stations, riders must park in physical parking corrals enforced using Lime’s industry-leading geofence technology,” Phil Jones, Lime’s senior government relations director told TechCrunch. Lime uses a combination of onboard and cloud computing to determine the locations of geofences, so it’ll be interesting to see how this tech holds up in such a dense city, where even Google Maps often has trouble placing individuals. “Using our LimeLocks, riders must lock their e-scooters at bike racks or other places where traditional bike parking is permitted.”

Veo also plans to implement lock-to parking to keep scooters from falling over or blocking sidewalks.  

The pilot will cover an 18-square-mile area that’s home to 570,000 residents, 80% of whom are black or Latino. The median household income in the Bronx is $40,088 with a poverty rate of 26.2%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so equity was top of mind for the city when evaluating operators. 

Bird already has an Access program that offers unlimited rides to low-income residents who are on government assistance for $5 a month, and even allows riders to pay with cash and unlock vehicles via SMS. Veo has an access program, but unclear what terms

Lime’s Access Program is similar, in that it offers 50% off rides to those on public assistance, but with NYC the program will see a rebrand as Lime Aid and expand to cover frontline healthcare workers, teachers, and people in the performing arts, non-profit and hospitality sectors — those who have been most affected by the pandemic. Lime also has agreements with employment offices like BronxWorks and the Center for Employment Opportunities to source employees for the pilot locally.

About 11% of Bronx residents under the age of 65 have a disability, so the DOT also evaluated operators based on accessibility. Victor Calise, commissioner of the mayor’s office for people with disabilities, was one of the people on the grading panel, so Lime made a point of focusing on accessibility for the disabled community. 

Lime recently launched a program in San Francisco that allows people with disabilities to order an accessible scooter delivered to their house with 24 hours advance notice, and the company intends to try out the same service in New York. In preparation for the Bronx pilot, Lime designed and built seven different vehicle types to meet various physical abilities, including a three-wheeled, sit-down vehicle for someone who has challenges balancing; a two-wheeled sit-down for someone who can’t stand for long periods of time; a tandem scooter of sorts so someone who has trouble seeing or is blind can have a partner with full vision with them; and a tricycle with a shopping basket. These vehicles are available on demand and will be delivered directly to users upon request. 

[gallery ids="2138246,2138250,2138242"]

“We didn’t want to just think what might a disabled person want, but to actually go to the New York disabled community and learn from them,” said Jones, noting that Lime worked with New York’s Center for Independence of the Disabled, as well as other advocacy groups, prior to submitting its bid. “There’s a vocal and vibrant community here, and we are not just addressing their concerns around parking on the street, but how they can actually use our devices so we can provide a meaningful service to them.”

Veo will offer its stand-up Astro e-scooter and its futuristic-looking Cosmo seated e-scooter because seated rides are more accessible for many, especially those taking longer trips. The company has also stated that it’s committed to ADA compliance and will make electric-powered attachments that allow private non-motorized wheelchairs to operate as motorized devices available upon request.  

In terms of reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, Veo also touts its waterproof, durable, swappable batteries, which don’t require a gas-guzzling van to replace batteries but which can be done via cargo bike or even the Cosmo. Lime also has swappable batteries, but according to a November blog post, Bird has still not implemented this technology in full. 

To enhance safety, Bird recently launched Beginner Mode as a new feature built for the Bird Two alongside autonomous emergency braking and skid detection. This gives new riders a gentle acceleration option so they can gradually work their way up to full speed.  

The TechCrunch Survey of Tech Startup Hubs in England and Wales

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the major European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words. For this survey we are interested in startup hubs in England and Wales. (Scotland will follow, and Northern Ireland is here).

So this is your chance to put your cities on the Techcrunch Map!

We’re like to hear from founders and investors. We are particularly interested in hearing from diverse founders and investors. These are our humble suggestions for the cities we’d most like to hear from:

Birmingham
Brighton
Bristol & Bath
Cambridge
Cardiff
Liverpool
Manchester
Newcastle
Oxford
Reading and Thames valley
York

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of the above cities please fill out the survey form here.

The more founders/investors we hear from in a particular city, the more likely it is that city will be featured in TechCrunch.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

Job postings hint at winners of NYC and London e-scooter pilots

By Rebecca Bellan

A batch of job listings along with some Twitter whisperings suggests that scooter companies such as Lime and Superpedestrian are gearing up to operate in London and New York City — two of the last remaining frontiers of shared-scooter services.

A review of job listings, company websites and LinkedIn shows that Lime and Dott are preparing to launch in London, while Lime, Superpedestrian and maybe even Spin are getting ready for New York. While the job posts don’t provide definitive proof that these companies have been awarded these coveted permits, it does identify which companies believe they will win.

London’s Department for Transport and the NYC City Council approved their respective e-scooter pilots in the summer of 2020 as city dwellers sought socially distanced modes of travel. London’s pilot should have begun at the start of 2021, and NYC’s was originally meant to launch by March 1, but neither city has even named which companies will be awarded concessions yet. Sources familiar with the dealings say London is holding up the announcement until after the mayoral race on May 6. The NYC Department of Transportation declined to comment.

Dott, Tier and Lime for London?

There has been speculation that Dott, Lime and maybe Tier will be sharing the streets of London once the pilot takes off. Information on Dott’s and Lime’s websites, LinkedIn profiles and hiring pages show that they’re hiring for positions in the city. Sources in the industry told TechCrunch that Tier had a London-focused job posting listed on its page that has since been taken down.

Dott, which doesn’t already appear to have a footprint in the United Kingdom, is hiring a U.K.-based operations manager to “set up operations from scratch within the U.K.” They’re also hiring a public policy manager to be the “voice for the Dott U.K. market.”

On Dott’s website, a map showing service areas shows a little yellow flag over London. Clicking on the flag leads to a 404 “page not found” error page. 

Lime, a mobility company that appears to be swiftly taking over the world, already has a presence in London in the form of its Jump e-bikes, which made an appearance last summer. New job postings on LinkedIn suggests they’re preparing to expand. 

The company’s LinkedIn page reveals a call for a London-based general manager whose responsibilities include building and implementing “the operational infrastructure to ensure market growth in the United Kingdom.” That gig was posted a week ago and they’re actively recruiting for it on LinkedIn. 

About a month ago, Lime also posted a London-based operations manager role, for which it appears to still be recruiting. 

Voi might also still be in the running based on its job postings on LinkedIn. On Thursday, the company added a call for an ambassador supervisor for a six-month position in London. It seems to be an on-the-ground sort of role, and the temporary nature of it could have something to do with London’s year-long pilot. It’s also possible the company is just looking for someone in a central city to manage the other U.K. cities where Voi operates.   

Bird has already been in London’s Olympic Park since the summer, and it actively lobbied for a change in London’s legislation around scooters riding on roads or pavements. This presence could explain why Bird’s operating map highlights London, but to make matters more confusing, the company is hiring an operations associate to ostensibly handle London city operations and general U.K. operations. 

New York might award Lime, Superpedestrian and others

Image Credits: Lime

Lime is no stranger to NYC. Its e-bikes have historically had a presence in The Rockaways, Queens. Now it has two job postings up — for a mechanic and an operations specialist — that specifically mention management, maintenance, deployment and retrieval of Lime’s e-scooters. 

Superpedestrian, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has four new job posts up between its website and LinkedIn. On the site, there’s a call for a chief of staff who is ideally based in NYC to support the CEO. Also listed is a general manager position; duties include “being responsible for the growth and success of our scooter share in New York and New Jersey.”

On LinkedIn, Superpedestrian has posted two positions based in NYC. The first, posted a week ago, is an operations associate that will handle things like scooter charging, safety inspections, deployment of scooters and scooter repair and assembly. The second is a scooter mechanic, posted a month ago, but to be fair the post does include the caveat: “If we are awarded the privilege of operating in NYC…”

Spin also posted (about a week ago) an operations lead based in New York. The employee hired for the position will be tasked with “Spin’s day-to-day operations, managing drivers and mechanics and building a highly efficient operations team.” It’s not precisely indicative of the Ford-owned company winning NYC, but the job does appear to be involved with on-the-ground tasks. The post also hints that the new hire would be leading the build-out and deployment of Spin’s vehicles. 

With a huge presence in Europe but absolutely none in the United States as of yet, Voi has been hoping NYC would be its entry into the country. The company hasn’t posted any NYC-specific job ads, but its job board features a locations dropdown menu that includes NYC.

Finally, Bird is adding to the mess of guesses with two LinkedIn job posts based in New York. The general manager position, posted four weeks ago but still actively recruiting, appears to require someone to be pretty locally involved. The operations associate role, posted on Wednesday, is a bit more vague about whether the new hire would be on the ground in NYC or not. 

Norwegian corporate training startup Attensi raises $26M from NYC’s Lugard Road, DX Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Corporate training startup Attensi — which originally emerged out of Oslo, Norway — has raised $26 million from New York-based Lugard Road Capital, DX Ventures (a VC fund backed by Delivery Hero), and existing shareholder Viking Venture. The new funding will be used to expand in North America and Europe.

Attensi uses a ‘gamified approach to corporate training, putting employees into 3D simulations of their workplace and work processes. Its competitors include companies like GoSkills, Mindflash SAP Litmos Skilljar.

With the pandemic shifting all office work to remote, digital training platforms like this stand to benefit.

This is also yet another recent example of how US VCs are ‘going hunting’ for startups in Europe, putting pressure on local VCs.

Attensi co-founder and co-CEO, Trond Aas said in a statement: “With gamified simulation training, we have combined the best of workplace psychology with our expertise in simulations and gamification to create a new category of training solutions.”

The company claims it’s experienced a 63% CAGR in annual recurring revenue. Its clients include Daimler Mercedes Benz, Circle K, Equinor, BCG, and ASDA.

Doug Friedman, a partner at Lugard Road Capital, said: “We could not be more excited to be investing in the Attensi team as they work to forever change and improve corporate learning and development through their Attensi solutions.”

Acorns’ new fintech target is debt management with acquisition of Pillar

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Popular saving and investing app Acorns has acquired Pillar, an AI-powered startup built to help manage student loan debt, in its second acquisition of 2021.

New York-based Pillar helps consumers optimize their debt payments by focusing first on student loans. It launched in May 2019 with $5.5 million in seed funding led by Kleiner Perkins. The companies declined to reveal the financial terms of the deal, only noting that within six months of launching, Pillar managed over $500 million worth of student loan debt of more than 15,000 borrowers. 

Michael Bloch dropped out of Stanford Business School and co-founded Pillar after he and his wife had amassed more than $500,000 of student loan debt after she graduated from law school. Prior to that, he had led the Strategy & Operations division for DoorDash, growing it to $100 million in revenue. The problem Pillar has aimed to tackle is massive. Student loan debt is the second-largest type of consumer debt in the U.S., with 45 million borrowers collectively owing nearly $1.7 trillion in student loans.

Notably, Acorns was apparently one of several companies that had courted Pillar.

“We were in a pretty lucky position to have a lot of interest from many of the top fintech companies that are out there,” Bloch told TechCrunch. “We had multiple offers on the table and Acorns was really our top choice just given how the business has been doing and the team, the culture and the mission.”

The deal marks the second acquisition this year and third overall for Acorns, which says it notched its strongest quarter in its history the first three months of this year. In March, Acorns also acquired Harvest, a fintech that helped customers reduce more than $4 million in debt in 2020.

The Pillar and Harvest teams will help Acorns accelerate its product roadmap of helping customers pay down debt, “an essential part of the financial wellness system,” said CEO and founder Noah Kerner.

Over time, Pillar will become part of one of Acorns’ monthly subscription tiers. 

“The IP and technology that the Pillar team created in debt management is really interesting to us when we think about how we scale our Smart Deposit feature,” Kerner said.

With Smart Deposit, when a customer’s paycheck hits the Acorns bank account, the app automatically allocates a percentage of that paycheck into an individual’s different investment accounts. 

“From a behavioral perspective, the best way to get somebody to save and invest is to enable them to set aside a piece of their paycheck as soon as it hits the account so that they don’t spend it. That feature has been really well adopted by our direct deposit customers,” Kerner said. “And so Michael and his team are coming in to manage that feature, and also our bank accounts product. I think their past experience is going to be really useful for us to take what we have and help the team catalyze it further.”

With its latest acquisition, Irvine, California-based Acorns now has more than 350 employees. In 2017, the company acquired Vault, now called “Acorns Later.” As a result of that acquisition, the company has seen its number of retirement accounts grow to 1.2 million from 500.

As mentioned above, Acorns has had a good year so far. In the first six weeks of 2021, the company added nearly 600,000 new accounts, reaching a total of more than 9 million users having saved and invested a total of $7.5 billion.

“The first quarter was our biggest growth quarter on record,” Kerner told TechCrunch. “In particular we crossed the $4.3 billion in dollars in assets under management, which is a really exciting milestone when you think about the fact that these are customers that are saving small amounts of money in the relative scheme of money invested typically.”

KKR closes $15 billion fund targeting consumption and urbanization in Asia

By Rita Liao

KKR has just closed $15 billion for its Asia-focused private equity fund, exceeding its original target size after receiving “strong support” from new and existing global investors, including those in the Asia Pacific region.

The new close came nearly four years after KKR raised its Asian Fund III of $9.3 billion and marks the New York-based alternative asset management titan’s ongoing interest in Asia. It also makes KKR Asian Fund IV one of the largest private equity funds dedicated to the Asia Pacific region.

KKR itself will inject about $1.3 billion into Fund IV alongside investors through the firm and its employees’ commitments. The new fund will be on the lookout for opportunities in consumption and urbanization trends, as well as corporate carve-outs, spin-offs, and consolidation.

KKR has been a prolific investor in Asia-Pacific since it entered the region 16 years ago with a multifaceted approach that spans private equity, infrastructure, real estate and credit. It currently has $30 billion in assets under management in the region.

The firm has been active during COVID-19 as well. On the one hand, the pandemic has accelerated the transition to online activities and singled out tech firms that proved resilient during the health crisis. Market disruption in the last year has also made valuations more attractive and pressured companies to seek new sources of capital. All in all, these forces provide “increasingly interesting opportunities for flexible capital providers like KKR,” the firm’s spokesperson Anita Davis told TechCrunch.

Since the pandemic, KKR has deployed about $7 billion across multiple strategies in Asia.

While KKR looks for deals across Asia, each market provides different opportunities pertaining to the state of its economy. For deals in consumption upgrades, KKR seeks out companies in emerging markets like China, Southeast Asia and India, said Davis. In developed countries like Japan, Korea and Australia, KKR observed that continued governance reform, along with a focus on return on equity (ROE), has driven carve-outs from conglomerates and spin-offs from multinational corporations, Davis added.

Specifically, KKR’s private equity portfolio in Asia consists of about 60 companies across 11 countries. Some of its more notable deals include co-leading ByteDance’s $3 billion raise in 2018 amid the TikTok parent’s rapid growth and bankrolling Reliance Jio with $1.5 billion in 2020.

“The opportunity for private equity investment across Asia-Pacific is phenomenal,” said Hiro Hirano, co-head of Asia Pacific Private Equity at KKR. “While each market is unique, the long-term fundamentals underpinning the region’s growth are consistent — the demand for consumption upgrades, a fast-growing middle class, rising urbanization, and technological disruption.”

The Asian Fund IV followed in the footsteps of KKR’s two other Asia-focused funds that closed in January, the $3.9 billion Asia Pacific Infrastructure Investors Fund and the $1.7 billion Asia Real Estate Partners Fund.

How Jamaica failed to handle its JamCOVID scandal

By Zack Whittaker

As governments scrambled to lock down their populations after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared last March, some countries had plans underway to reopen. By June, Jamaica became one of the first countries to open its borders.

Tourism represents about one-fifth of Jamaica’s economy. In 2019 alone, four million travelers visited Jamaica, bringing thousands of jobs to its three million residents. But as COVID-19 stretched into the summer, Jamaica’s economy was in free fall, and tourism was its only way back — even if that meant at the expense of public health.

The Jamaican government contracted with Amber Group, a technology company headquartered in Kingston, to build a border entry system allowing residents and travelers back onto the island. The system was named JamCOVID and was rolled out as an app and a website to allow visitors to get screened before they arrive. To cross the border, travelers had to upload a negative COVID-19 test result to JamCOVID before boarding their flight from high-risk countries, including the United States.

Amber Group’s CEO Dushyant Savadia boasted that his company developed JamCOVID in “three days” and that it effectively donated the system to the Jamaican government, which in turn pays Amber Group for additional features and customizations. The rollout appeared to be a success, and Amber Group later secured contracts to roll out its border entry system to at least four other Caribbean islands.

But last month TechCrunch revealed that JamCOVID exposed immigration documents, passport numbers, and COVID-19 lab test results on close to half a million travelers — including many Americans — who visited the island over the past year. Amber Group had set the access to the JamCOVID cloud server to public, allowing anyone to access its data from their web browser.

Whether the data exposure was caused by human error or negligence, it was an embarrassing mistake for a technology company — and, by extension, the Jamaican government — to make.

And that might have been the end of it. Instead, the government’s response became the story.

A trio of security lapses

By the end of the first wave of coronavirus, contact tracing apps were still in their infancy and few governments had plans in place to screen travelers as they arrived at their borders. It was a scramble for governments to build or acquire technology to understand the spread of the virus.

Jamaica was one of a handful of countries using location data to monitor travelers, prompting rights groups to raise concerns about privacy and data protection.

As part of an investigation into a broad range of these COVID-19 apps and services, TechCrunch found that JamCOVID was storing data on an exposed, passwordless server.

This wasn’t the first time TechCrunch found security flaws or exposed data through our reporting. It also was not the first pandemic-related security scare. Israeli spyware maker NSO Group left real location data on an unprotected server that it used for demonstrating its new contact tracing system. Norway was one of the first countries with a contact tracing app, but pulled it after the country’s privacy authority found the continuous tracking of citizens’ location was a privacy risk.

Just as we have with any other story, we contacted who we thought was the server’s owner. We alerted Jamaica’s Ministry of Health to the data exposure on the weekend of February 13. But after we provided specific details of the exposure to ministry spokesperson Stephen Davidson, we did not hear back. Two days later, the data was still exposed.

After we spoke to two American travelers whose data was spilling from the server, we narrowed down the owner of the server to Amber Group. We contacted its chief executive Savadia on February 16, who acknowledged the email but did not comment, and the server was secured about an hour later.

We ran our story that afternoon. After we published, the Jamaican government issued a statement claiming the lapse was “discovered on February 16” and was “immediately rectified,” neither of which were true.

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Instead, the government responded by launching a criminal investigation into whether there was any “unauthorized” access to the unprotected data that led to our first story, which we perceived to be a thinly veiled threat directed at this publication. The government said it had contacted its overseas law enforcement partners.

When reached, a spokesperson for the FBI declined to say whether the Jamaican government had contacted the agency.

Things didn’t get much better for JamCOVID. In the days that followed the first story, the government engaged a cloud and cybersecurity consultant, Escala 24×7, to assess JamCOVID’s security. The results were not disclosed, but the company said it was confident there was “no current vulnerability” in JamCOVID. Amber Group also said that the lapse was a “completely isolated occurrence.”

A week went by and TechCrunch alerted Amber Group to two more security lapses. After the attention from the first report, a security researcher who saw the news of the first lapse found exposed private keys and passwords for JamCOVID’s servers and databases hidden on its website, and a third lapse that spilled quarantine orders for more than half a million travelers.

Amber Group and the government claimed it faced “cyberattacks, hacking and mischievous players.” In reality, the app was just not that secure.

Politically inconvenient

The security lapses come at a politically inconvenient time for the Jamaican government, as it attempts to launch a national identification system, or NIDS, for the second time. NIDS will store biographic data on Jamaican nationals, including their biometrics, such as their fingerprints.

The repeat effort comes two years after the government’s first law was struck down by Jamaica’s High Court as unconstitutional.

Critics have cited the JamCOVID security lapses as a reason to drop the proposed national database. A coalition of privacy and rights groups cited the recent issues with JamCOVID for why a national database is “potentially dangerous for Jamaicans’ privacy and security.” A spokesperson for Jamaica’s opposition party told local media that there “wasn’t much confidence in NIDS in the first place.”

It’s been more than a month since we published the first story and there are many unanswered questions, including how Amber Group secured the contract to build and run JamCOVID, how the cloud server became exposed, and if security testing was conducted before its launch.

TechCrunch emailed both the Jamaican prime minister’s office and Jamaica’s national security minister Matthew Samuda to ask how much, if anything, the government donated or paid to Amber Group to run JamCOVID and what security requirements, if any, were agreed upon for JamCOVID. We did not get a response.

Amber Group also has not said how much it has earned from its government contracts. Amber Group’s Savadia declined to disclose the value of the contracts to one local newspaper. Savadia did not respond to our emails with questions about its contracts.

Following the second security lapse, Jamaica’s opposition party demanded that the prime minister release the contracts that govern the agreement between the government and Amber Group. Prime Minister Andrew Holness said at a press conference that the public “should know” about government contracts but warned “legal hurdles” may prevent disclosure, such as for national security reasons or when “sensitive trade and commercial information” might be disclosed.

That came days after local newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner had a request to obtain contracts revealing the salaries state officials denied by the government under a legal clause that prevents the disclosure of an individual’s private affairs. Critics argue that taxpayers have a right to know how much government officials are paid from public funds.

Jamaica’s opposition party also asked what was done to notify victims.

Government minister Samuda initially downplayed the security lapse, claiming just 700 people were affected. We scoured social media for proof but found nothing. To date, we’ve found no evidence that the Jamaican government ever informed travelers of the security incident — either the hundreds of thousands of affected travelers whose information was exposed, or the 700 people that the government claimed it notified but has not publicly released.

TechCrunch emailed the minister to request a copy of the notice that the government allegedly sent to victims, but we did not receive a response. We also asked Amber Group and Jamaica’s prime minister’s office for comment. We did not hear back.

Many of the victims of the security lapse are from the United States. Neither of the two Americans we spoke to in our first report were notified of the breach.

Spokespeople for the attorneys general of New York and Florida, whose residents’ information was exposed, told TechCrunch that they had not heard from either the Jamaican government or the contractor, despite state laws requiring data breaches to be disclosed.

The reopening of Jamaica’s borders came at a cost. The island saw over a hundred new cases of COVID-19 in the month that followed, the majority arriving from the United States. From June to August, the number of new coronavirus cases went from tens to dozens to hundreds each day.

To date, Jamaica has reported over 39,500 cases and 600 deaths caused by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Holness reflected on the decision to reopen its borders last month in parliament to announce the country’s annual budget. He said the country’s economic decline last was “driven by a massive 70% contraction in our tourist industry.” More than 525,000 travelers — both residents and tourists — have arrived in Jamaica since the borders opened, Holness said, a figure slightly more than the number of travelers’ records found on the exposed JamCOVID server in February.

Holness defended reopening the country’s borders.

“Had we not done this the fall out in tourism revenues would have been 100% instead of 75%, there would be no recovery in employment, our balance of payment deficit would have worsened, overall government revenues would have been threatened, and there would be no argument to be made about spending more,” he said.

Both the Jamaican government and Amber Group benefited from opening the country’s borders. The government wanted to revive its falling economy, and Amber Group enriched its business with fresh government contracts. But neither paid enough attention to cybersecurity, and victims of their negligence deserve to know why.


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Google alum startup Cartken and REEF Technology launch Miami’s first delivery robots

By Rebecca Bellan

Self-driving and robotics startup Cartken has partnered with REEF Technology, a startup that operates parking lots and neighborhood hubs, to bring self-driving delivery robots to the streets of downtown Miami.

With this announcement, Cartken officially comes out of stealth mode. The company, founded by ex-Google engineers and colleagues behind the unrequited Bookbot, was formed to develop market-ready tech in self-driving, AI-powered robotics and delivery operations in 2019, but the team has kept operations under wraps until now. This is Cartken’s first large deployment of self-driving robots on sidewalks.

After a few test months, the REEF-branded electric-powered robots are now delivering dinner orders from REEF’s network of delivery-only kitchens to people located within a 3/4-mile radius in downtown Miami. The robots, which are insulated and thus can preserve the heat of a plate of spaghetti or other hot food, are pre-stationed at designated logistics hubs and dispatched with orders for delivery as the food is prepared.

“We want to show how future-forward Miami can be,” Matt Lindenberger, REEF’s chief technology officer, told TechCrunch. “This is a great chance to show off the capabilities of the tech. The combination of us having a big presence in Miami, the fact that there are a lot of challenges around congestion as Covid subsides, still shows a really good environment where we can show how this tech can work.”

Lindenberg said Miami is a great place to start, but it’s just the beginning, with potential for the Cartken robots to be used for REEF’s other last-mile delivery businesses. Currently, only two restaurant delivery robots are operating in Miami, but Lindenberger said the company is planning to expand further into the city and outward into Fort Lauderdale, as well as other large metros the company operates in, such as Dallas, Atlanta, Los Angeles and eventually New York.

Lindenberger is hoping the presence of robots in the streets can act as a “force multiplier” allowing them to scale while maintaining quality of service in a cost-effective way.

“We’re seeing an explosion in deliveries right now in a post-pandemic world and we foresee that to continue, so these types of no-contact, zero-emission automation techniques are really critical,” he said.

Cartken’s robots are powered by a combination of machine learning and rules-based programming to react to every situation that could occur, even if that just means safely stopping and asking for help, Christian Bersch, CEO of Cartken, told TechCrunch. REEF would have supervisors on site to remotely control the robot if needed, a caveat that was included in the 2017 legislation that allowed for the operation of self-driving delivery robots in Florida.

“The technology at the end of the day is very similar to that of a self-driving car,” said Bersch. “The robot is seeing the environment, planning around obstacles like pedestrians or lampposts. If there’s an unknown situation, someone can help the robot out safely because it can stop on a dime. But it’s important to also have that level of autonomy on the robot because it can react in a split second, faster than anybody remotely could, if something happens like someone jumps in front of it.”

REEF marks specific operating areas on the map for the robots and Cartken tweaks the configuration for the city, accounting for specific situations a robot might need to deal with, so that when the robots are given a delivery address, they can make moves and operate like any other delivery driver. Only this driver has an LTE connection and is constantly updating its location so REEF can integrate it into its fleet management capabilities.

Image Credits: REEF/Cartken

Eventually, Lindenberger said, they’re hoping to be able to offer the option for customers to choose robot delivery on the major food delivery platforms REEF works with like Postmates, UberEats, DoorDash or GrubHub. Customers would receive a text when the robot arrives so they could go outside and meet it. However, the tech is not quite there yet.

Currently the robots only make it street-level, and then the food is passed off to a human who delivers it directly to the door, which is a service that most customers prefer. Navigating into an apartment complex and to a customer’s unit is difficult for a robot to manage just yet, and many customers aren’t quite ready to interact directly with a robot. 

“It’s an interim step, but this was a path for us to move forward quickly with the technology without having any other boundaries,” said Lindenberger. “Like with any new tech, you want to take it in steps. So a super important step which we’ve now taken and works very well is the ability to dispatch robots within a certain radius and know that they’re going to arrive there. That in and of itself is a huge step and it allows us to learn what kind of challenges you have in terms of that very last step. Then we can begin to work with Cartken to solve that last piece. It’s a big step just being able to do this automation.”

Knock is the latest proptech said to be eyeing the public markets

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Another proptech is considering raising capital through the public arena.

Knock confirmed Monday that it is considering going public, although CEO Sean Black did not specify whether the company would do so via a traditional IPO, SPAC merger or direct listing.

“We are considering all of our options,” Black told TechCrunch. “We pioneered the real estate transaction revolution over five years ago and our priority is to build a war chest to dramatically widen the already cavernous gap between us and any unoriginal knock-offs.”

Bloomberg reported earlier today that the company had hired Goldman Sachs to advise on such a bid, which Knock also confirmed.

According to Bloomberg, Knock is potentially seeking to raise $400 million to $500 million through an IPO, according to “people familiar with the matter,” at a valuation of about $2 billion. The company declined to comment on valuation.

Black and Knock COO Jamie Glenn are no strangers to the proptech game, having both been on the founding team of Trulia, which went public in 2012 and was acquired by Zillow for $3.5 billion in 2014. The pair started Knock in 2015, and have since raised over $430 million in venture funding and another $170 million or so in debt.

Knock started out as a real estate brokerage business until last July, when the company announced a major shift in strategy and said it was becoming a lender. At the time, Knock unveiled its Home Swap program, under which Knock serves as the lender to help a homeowner buy a new home before selling their old house. It previously worked with lending partners but has now become a licensed lender itself.

In other words, the company now offers integrated financing — the mortgage and an interest-free bridge loan — with the goal of helping consumers make strong non-contingent offers on a new home before repairing and listing their old home for sale on the open market.

With that move, Knock eliminated its Home Trade-In program, where it helped consumers buy before selling by using its own money to purchase the new home on behalf of the consumer before prepping and listing the consumer’s old house on the open market. Under that trade-in model, the homeowner used the proceeds from selling their old home to buy the new home from Knock and pay the company back for any repairs it did to prep the house for sale.

At that time, Black told me that Knock had decided to move away from its trade-in program in part because it was capital-intensive and required the closing of a house to take place twice.

“It added friction to the experience,” he said. “And now, especially during COVID, it can be inconvenient to try and sell a house at the same time as buying one. This is about making something possible that isn’t possible with any other traditional lender. We’re able to lend some money before an owner’s [old] house is even listed on the market.” 

To sum up what Knock does today, Black said the company aims to offer a full service technology platform that includes everything “from pre-funding the homebuyers to make non-contingent offers and win bidding wars, to getting their old home ready for market with our contractor network to selling their old home quickly at the highest price and empowers them to have their own agent working with them in the app through the entire process.”

Demand for the Home Swap, he added, has “exceeded all expectations.”

Knock is headquartered in New York and San Francisco. The company launched the Home Swap in three markets in July 2020, and today it is in 27 markets in nine states, including Texas, California and North Carolina.

“Our original plan was to be in 21 markets by the end of 2021,” Black said. “At our current growth rate, we expect to end the year at 45 markets and be in 100 by 2023.”

Knock began 2021 with 100 employees and now has 150. Its plan is to have at least 400 employees by year’s end.

Other proptech startups that have recently announced plans to go public include Compass and Doma (formerly States Title).

ChargerHelp raises $2.75M to keep EV chargers working

By Kirsten Korosec

The coming wave of electric vehicles will require more than thousands of charging stations. In addition to being installed, they also need to work — and today, that isn’t happening.

If a station doesn’t send out an error or a driver doesn’t report it, network providers might never know there’s even a problem. Kameale C. Terry, who co-founded ChargerHelp!, an on-demand repair app for electric vehicle charging stations, has seen these issues firsthand.

One customer assumed that poor usage rates at a particular station was due to a lack of EVs in the area, Terry recalled in a recent interview. That wasn’t the problem.

“There was an abandoned vehicle parked there and the station was surrounded by mud,” said Terry who is CEO and co-founded the company with Evette Ellis.

Demand for ChargerHelp’s service has attracted customers and investors. The company said it has raised $2.75 million from investors Trucks VC, Kapor Capital, JFF, Energy Impact Partners and The Fund. This round values the startup, which was founded in January 2020, at $11 million post-money.

The funds will be used to build out its platform, hire beyond its 27-person workforce and expand its service area. ChargerHelp works directly with the charging manufacturers and network providers.

“Today when a station goes down there’s really no troubleshooting guidance,” said Terry, noting that it takes getting someone out into the field to run diagnostics on the station to understand the specific problem. After an onsite visit, a technician then typically shares data with the customer, and then steps are taken to order the correct and specific part — a practice that often doesn’t happen today.

While ChargerHelp is couched as an on-demand repair app, it is also acts as a preventative maintenance service for its customers.

Powering up

The idea for ChargerHelp came from Terry’s experience working at EV Connect, where she held a number of roles, including head of customer experience and director of programs. During her time there, she worked with 12 manufacturers, which gave her knowledge into inner workings and common problems with the chargers.

It was here that she spotted a gap in the EV charging market.

“When the stations went down we really couldn’t get anyone on site because most of the issues were communication issues, vandalism, firmware updates or swapping out a part — all things that were not electrical,” Terry said.

And yet, the general practice was to use electrical contractors to fix issues at the charging stations. Terry said it could take as long as 30 days to get an electrical contractor on site to repair these non-electrical problems.

Terry often took matters in her own hands if issues arose with stations located in Los Angeles, where she is based.

“If there was a part that needed to be swapped out, I would just go do it myself,” Terry said, adding she didn’t have a background in software or repairs. “I thought, if I can figure this stuff out, then anyone can.”

In January 2020, Terry quit her job and started ChargerHelp. The newly minted founder joined the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, where she developed a curriculum to teach people how to repair EV chargers. It was here that she met Ellis, a career coach at LACI who also worked at the Long Beach Job Corp Center. Ellis is now the chief workforce officer at ChargerHelp.

Since then, Terry and Ellis were accepted into Elemental Excelerator’s startup incubator, raised about $400,000 in grant money, launched a pilot program with Tellus Power focused on preventative maintenance and landed contracts with EV charging networks and manufacturers such as EV Connect, ABB and SparkCharge. Terry said they have also hired their core team of seven employees and trained their first tranche of technicians.

Hiring approach

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Image Credits: ChargerHelp

ChargerHelp takes a workforce-development approach to finding employees. The company only hires in cohorts, or groups, of employees.

The company received more than 1,600 applications in its first recruitment round for electric vehicle service technicians, according to Terry. Of those, 20 were picked to go through training and 18 were ultimately hired to service contracts across six states, including California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Texas. Everyone picked to go through training is paid a stipend and earn two safety licenses.

The startup will begin its second recruitment round in April. All workers are full-time with a guaranteed wage of $30 an hour and are being given shares in the startup, Terry said. The company is working directly with workforce development centers in the areas where ChargerHelp needs technicians.

New York moves to legalize recreational marijuana

By Matt Burns

New York State officials struck a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to allow recreational use of cannabis. The move would create the largest legal cannabis market on the East Coast, potentially creating tens of thousands of jobs and significant startups opportunities.

This is a big first step, though the first sale of recreational weed is unlikely to happen in 2021. The framework needs a final review, and lawmakers still need to create the rules and regulations surrounding commercial sales. According to the New York Times, the Democratic-controlled State Legislature could pass the bill as soon as next week.

The deal comes after several failed attempts to bring recreational cannabis to New York. Neighboring state New Jersey passed a recreational marijuana bill in the 2020 election.

The legislation, as purposed, has several interesting aspects. The purposed bill allows for weed delivery and club-like consumption lounges where patrons can consume cannabis but not alcohol. In-home growing is also allowed and limited to six plants for personal use. According to the NYT, the proposed deal funnels millions of dollars in tax revenue back to the communities where the failed war on drugs had a disproportionately negative impact. This includes reserving many business licenses for minority business owners and providing loans, grants, and incubator programs for small farmers.

New York lawmakers also intend to rework laws around possession by eliminating penalties for less than three ounces of cannabis. This would also expunge the record of those convicted of activities that are now legal.

Squarespace raises $300M at a staggering $10B valuation

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Squarespace has raised $300 million in a round of funding that values the company at a staggering $10 billion valuation.

New backers include Dragoneer, Tiger Global, D1 Capital Partners, Fidelity Management & Research Company, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. and Spruce House. Existing backers Accel and General Atlantic also participated. 

Squarespace founder & CEO Anthony Casalena said the fresh capital will advance the company’s growth initiatives and help it scale its product suite.

The move comes less than two months after the company filed confidentiality to go public via a direct listing or initial public offering.

Squarespace, which has helped millions create their own websites, was founded in 2003 and bootstrapped until a $38.5 million Series A in 2010 that was co-led by Accel and Index Ventures.

The online website creation and hosting service — which has now expanded into e-commerce by hosting online stores — then raised another $40 million round in 2014. But it is perhaps best known for its epic 2017-era $200 million secondary round that General Atlantic financed. That round was raised at a $1.5 billion pre-money valuation.

At that time, TechCrunch reported that Squarespace was a profitable company, with revenues increasing 50% in the prior year, to about $300 million. Execs are declining to comment on the company’s latest funding round beyond a post on its website.

New York City-based Squarespace has over 1,200 employees spread across its headquarters and offices in Dublin, Ireland; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, California. 

 

Socure raises $100M at $1.3B valuation, proving identity verification is hotter than ever

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digital adoption in a way that no one could have ever anticipated, and as more people conduct more services online and via mobile devices, businesses have had to work even harder to validate users and security. One company working to serve that need, Socure – which uses AI and machine learning to verify identities – announced Tuesday that it has raised $100 million in a Series D funding round at a $1.3 billion valuation.

Given how much of our lives have shifted online, it’s no surprise that the U.S. digital identity market is projected to increase to over $30 billion by 2023 from just under $15 billion in 2019, according to One World IdentityThis has led to skyrocketing demand for the services provided by identity verification companies. 

Historically, Socure has been focused on the financial services industry, but it plans to use its new capital to further expand into “every consumer-facing vertical” including online gaming, healthcare, telco, e-commerce, and on-demand services.

The startup’s predictive analytics platform applies artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques with online/offline data intelligence (from email, phone, address, IP, device, velocity, and the broader internet) to verify that people are, in fact, who they say they are when applying for various accounts.

Today, Socure has more than 350 customers including three top five banks, six top 10 card issuers, a “top” credit bureau and over 75 fintechs such as Varo Money, Public, Chime, and Stash.

Accel led Socure’s latest financing, which included participation from existing backers Commerce Ventures, Scale Venture Partners, Flint Capital, Citi Ventures, Wells Fargo Strategic Capital, Synchrony, Sorenson, Two Sigma Ventures, and others. 

The round comes less than six months after the company raised $35 million in a round led by Sorenson Ventures, and brings the New York-based company’s total raised to $196 million since its 2012 inception.

Socure founder and CEO Johnny Ayers says his company’s identity management products can help B2C enterprises achieve know-your-customer (KYC) auto-approval rates of up to 97%. This means that financial institutions can more easily capture fraud, for example, via Socure’s single API. The company also claims that by more easily verifying thin-file (those without much credit history) and young consumers, it can help reduce the underbanked population.     

The company plans to use its new capital to also enhance its product offering as it continues to develop patents. 

Accel partner Amit Jhawar will join Socure’s board as part of the funding round.

In a blog post, Jhawar described Socure as “a purpose-built solution designed to handle the wave of new online users because its machine learning models have learned from every identity it has already seen.”

As former COO at Braintree and general  manager at Venmo, Jhawar knows a thing or two about the importance of identity verification, especially in the financial services space.

He wrote: “I knew immediately that the Socure solution would be a game-changer because the solution can be used in every step of the customer lifecycle, from account creation to login to transaction.”

Socure also has hinted that it has an IPO in its future.

In a written statement, Ayers said: “We are incredibly grateful for the chance to innovate and partner to solve this problem with some of the greatest companies in the world and are energized for the opportunities that lay ahead for Socure, especially as we make our march to a potential IPO.”

TechCrunch has reached out to Socure and will update this story with more details.

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