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We’re off and running with good milestones achieved for NASA’s commercial crew program, which means it’s more likely than ever we’ll actually see astronauts launch from U.S. soil before the year is out.
If that’s not enough to get you pumped about the space sector in 2020, we also have a great overview of 2019 in space tech investment, and a look forward at what’s happening next year from Space Angels’ Chad Anderson. Plus, we announced our own dedicated space event, which is happening this June.
SpaceX launched its Crew Dragon commercial astronaut spacecraft on Sunday. No one was on board, but the test was crucial because it included firing off the in-flight abort (IFA) safety system that will protect actual astronauts should anything go wrong with future real missions.
The SpaceX in-flight abort test included this planned fireball, as the Falcon 9 rocket it launched upon broke up.
The IFA seems to have worked as intended, propelling the Crew Dragon away from the Falcon 9 it was launched on top of at high speed. In an actual emergency, this would ensure that the astronauts aboard were transported to a safe distance, and then returned to Earth at a safe speed using the onboard parachutes, which seem to have deployed exactly as planned.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is looking a bit further ahead, in the meantime, to when his company’s Starship spacecraft is fully operational and making regular trips to Mars. Musk said he wants to be launching Starships as much as thrice daily, with the goal of moving megatons of cargo and up to a million people to Mars at full target operating pace.
Secretive space launch startup SpinLaunch is adding to its operating capital with a new $35 million investment, a round led by Airbus Ventures, GV and more. The company wants to use rotational force to effectively fling payloads out of Earth’s atmosphere – without using any rockets. Sounds insane, but I’ve heard from people much smarter than me that the company, and the core concept, is sound.
I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chat Anderson about his company’s quarterly tracking of private investment in the space technology sector, which they’ve been doing since 2017. They’re uniquely well-positioned to combine data from both public sources and the companies they speak to, and perform due diligence on, so there’s no better place to look for insight on where we’ve been, and an educated perspective on where we’re going. (ExtraCrunch subscription required).
Rocket Lab was born in New Zealand, and still operates a facility and main launch pad there, but it’s increasingly building out its U.S. presence, too. Now, the company shared its plans to build a combined HQ/Mission Control/rocket fab facility in LA. Construction is already underway, and it should be completed later this year.
‘Rideshare’ in space means something entirely different than it does on Earth – you’re not hailing an Uber, you’re booking one portion of cargo space aboard a rocket with a group of other clients. Orbex has a new customer that bought up all the capacity for one of its future rideshare missions, planned for 2022. The new launch provider hasn’t actually launched any rockets, however, so it’ll have to pass that key milestone before it makes good on that new contract.
Yes, it’s official: TechCrunch is hosting its on space-focused tech event on June 25 in LA. This will be a one-day, high-profile program featuring discussions with the top companies and people in space tech, startups and investment. We’ll be revealing more about programming over the next few months, but if you get in now you can guarantee your spot.
This week, LaunchDarkly announced that it has raised another $54 million. Led by Bessemer Venture Partners and backed by the company’s existing investors, it brings the company’s total funding up to $130 million.
For the unfamiliar, LaunchDarkly builds a platform that allows companies to easily roll out new features to only certain customers, providing a dashboard for things like “canary launches” (pushing new stuff to a small group of users to make sure nothing breaks) or launching a feature only in select countries or territories. By productizing an increasingly popular development concept (“feature flagging”) and making it easier to toggle new stuff across different platforms and languages, the company is quickly finding customers in companies that would rather not spend time rolling their own solutions.
I spoke with CEO and co-founder Edith Harbaugh, who filled me in on where the idea for LaunchDarkly came from, how their product is being embraced by product managers and marketing teams and the company’s plans to expand with offices around the world. Here’s our chat, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.
The app industry is as hot as ever with a record 204 billion downloads in 2019 and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s recently released “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.
In this Extra Crunch series, we help you to keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.
This week, we dig into App Annie’s new “State of Mobile 2019” report and other app trends. We’re also seeing big gains for TikTok in 2019 and Disney+ in Q4. Both Apple and Google announced acquisitions this week that have implications for the mobile industry, as well.
SpinLaunch, a company that aims to turn the launch industry on its head with a wild new concept for getting to orbit, has raised a $35M round B to continue its quest. The team has yet to demonstrate their kinetic launch system, but this year will be the year that changes, they claim.
TechCrunch first reported on SpinLaunch’s ambitious plans in 2018, when the company raised its previous $35 million, which combined with $10M it raised prior to that and today’s round comes to a total of $80M. With that kind of money you might actually be able to build a space catapult.
The basic idea behind SpinLaunch’s approach is to get a craft out of the atmosphere using a “rotational acceleration method” that brings a craft to escape velocity without any rockets. While the company has been extremely tight-lipped about the details, one imagines a sort of giant rail gun curled into a spiral, from which payloads will emerge into the atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour — weather be damned.
Naturally there is no shortage of objections to this method, the most obvious of which is that going from an evacuated tube into the atmosphere at those speeds might be like firing the payload into a brick wall. It’s doubtful that SpinLaunch would have proceeded this far if it did not have a mitigation for this (such as the needle-like appearance of the concept craft) and other potential problems, but the secretive company has revealed little.
The time for broader publicity may soon be at hand, however: the funds will be used to build out its new headquarter and R&D facility in Long Beach, but also to complete its flight test facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
“Later this year, we aim to change the history of space launch with the completion of our first flight test mass accelerator at Spaceport America,” said founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney in a press release announcing the funding.
Lowering the cost of launch has been the focus of some of the most successful space startups out there, and SpinLaunch aims to leapfrog their cost savings by offering orbital access for under $500,000. First commercial launch is targeted for 2022, assuming the upcoming tests go well.
Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.
Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.
Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.
All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.
Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.
The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business, such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.
With this latest money, Bolt has raised more than €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013, and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.
Bolt further said that its service now has more than 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.
The timing of the last equity round, and the company’s ambitious growth plans, could well mean it will be raising more equity funding again soon. Bolt’s existing backers include the Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi, Creandum, G Squared and Daimler (which owns a ride-hailing competitor, Free Now — formerly called MyTaxi).
“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said EIB’s vice president, Alexander Stubb, in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”
The EIB is the nonprofit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.
Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost investment in promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs as part of this plan.
Opting for a “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.
“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder of Bolt (whose brother Markus is the CEO), in a statement. “Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”
(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: It tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)
While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round of funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past, as has MariaDB.
One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been their safety record, a huge area of focus given the potential scale and ubiquity of a transportation or mobility service. Indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing; while it does, it’s business as usual.)
So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”
Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.
“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”
Precise.ly, the new genomics startup launched by 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey and Aneil Mallavarapu, is taking its spin on direct to consumer personalized genomics to India through a partnership with Naryana Health, one of India’s leading specialty hospital networks.
Narayana, a company that operates a network of 24 hospitals serving 2.5 million patients, is one of the most fascinating stories in healthcare. By emphasizing efficiencies and cost savings, the hospital network has managed to bring costs down dramatically for many procedures — including providing cancer surgeries for as little as $700 and heart bypass surgeries for $3,000 (as this fascinating article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek illustrates).
Precise.ly’s mission — to collect and analyze genetic data from populations that typically haven’t had access to the services — is one that resonates in a world where the majority of research has been conducted on wealthier populations in wealthy countries. Other startups, like 54Gene, are trying to bring a similar message to the African continent.
“To date, most human genetics research has focused on European populations. But genetic insights need to be tuned to the rest of the world,” said Mallavarapu, in a statement. “We’ve assembled a team of experts who are pioneering advances in genetic analysis and its application to the huge populations of people in south Asia and beyond.”
Some of that work is being done in concert with Narayana health, the hospital network founded by Dr. Devi Prasad Shetty nearly twenty years ago. Dr. Shetty is initially hoping that Precise.ly’s genetic database will be able to help his hospitals build out a stem cell donor registry that could help hundreds of thousands of Indians who need transplants.
“Personal genetic testing is recognized by the U.S. FDA to test genetic risk for Parkinsonism, late onset Alzheimer’s disease and celiac disease. It is only a matter of time before most diseases get added to the list,” Dr. Shetty said in a statement. “Because of the simplicity of genetic testing from saliva samples, it’s possible to conduct large-scale population screening at a reasonable cost. We are working with Precise.ly’s team of researchers to add HLA typing, which has the potential to transform cancer and other disease treatments in India.”
The path to entering the Indian market was slightly circuitous for Precise.ly. When Avey first left 23andMe, she went to RockHealth (an investor in the company’s $1 million seed round), and began exploring ways to organize and store more of a patient’s quantified health data.
As that company failed to gain traction, Avey took another look at the genetics market and found that there were significant opportunities in underserved markets — and that India, with its rising middle class and burgeoning healthcare industry would be a good target.
“We decided we would build on this Helix platform all kinds of apps for people who had specific diagnosis,” says Avey. But the market was already chock full of startups (including 23andMe), so an early investor in the company from, Civilization Ventures, and its founder Shahram Seyedin-Noor suggested that they begin to look globally for growth.
“Precise.ly’s mission is to deliver validated genetic insights to the billions of people living outside the western world. We’re initially focused on India where there are urgent health issues readily addressable through access to personal genomic data,” said Avey, the chief executive officer of Precise.ly, in a statement. “Our partnership with Narayana is vital to delivering on the promise of precise, data-driven health.”
Consumers downloaded a record 204 billion apps in 2019, up 6% from 2018 and up 45% since 2016, and spent $120 billion on apps, subscriptions and other in-app spending in the past year. The average mobile user, meanwhile, is spending 3.7 hours per day using apps. This data and more comes from App Annie’s annual report, “State of Mobile,” which highlights the biggest app trends for the past year, and sets forecasts for the years ahead.
According to App Annie, the record growth in mobile downloads in 2019 can be attributed to the growth taking place in emerging markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia, which have seen downloads soar 190%, 40% and 70%, respectively, since 2016. Meanwhile, download growth in the U.S. has slowed to just 5% during that same time, while China saw 80% growth.
That doesn’t mean users in mature markets aren’t downloading apps, only that the growth in year-over-year download numbers is starting to level off. Still, these more mature markets continue to see large numbers of installs, with more than 12.3 billion downloads in the U.S. in 2019, 2.5 billion in Japan and 2 billion in South Korea.
The record numbers are notable also, given that App Annie’s analysis excludes re-installs and app updates.
App store consumer spending was on the rise in 2019, as well, with $120 billion spent on apps — a figure that’s up 2.1x from 2016. Games continue to account for the majority (72%) of that spending, but the shift toward subscriptions has played a role, too. Last year, subscriptions in non-gaming apps accounted for 28% of consumer spending, up from 18% in 2016.
Subscriptions are now the primary way many non-gaming apps generate revenue. For example, 97% of consumer spending in the top 250 U.S. iOS apps was driven by subscriptions, and 94% of the apps used subscriptions. On Google Play, 91% of the consumer spending was subscription-based, while 79% of the top 250 apps used subscriptions.
In particular, dating apps like Tinder and video apps like Netflix and Tencent Video topped 2019’s consumer spend charts, thanks to subscription revenue.
Mature markets, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.K. are helping to fuel consumer spending across both games and subscriptions, App Annie found. But China remains the largest market by far, accounting for 40% of global spend.
App Annie also forecast that the mobile industry will contribute $4.8 trillion to the global GDP by 2023.
The report additionally identified several mobile trends from 2019, including the mobile app connection to the Internet of Things and smart home devices (106 million downloads for the top 20 IoT apps last year); the huge mobile engagement by Gen Z (3.8 hours per app per month, among the top 25 non-game apps, on avgerage); and mobile ad spend’s growth ($190 billion in 2019 to $240 bilion in 2020).
Ad spending combined with consumer spending is expected to reach $380 billion worldwide by 2020, App Annie forecast.
Gaming was given a big breakout section, given its contribution to consumer spending.
Consumer spending in mobile gaming was 2.4x that of Mac/PC gaming, and 2.9x more than game consoles. In 2019, mobile gaming saw 25% more spending than all other gaming, and is on track to surpass $100 billion across all app stores by next year.
Casual gaming (led by Puzzle and Arcade) was the most downloaded type of games in 2019. Meanwhile, core games (e.g. Action, RPG, etc.) — which were only 18% of downloads — accounted for 55% of time spent in top games. PUBG Mobile was the No. 1 core game (action) on Android in 2019, in terms of time spent, while Anipop (puzzle) was the top casual game.
Core games also accounted for the majority (76%) of game spending, followed by casual (18%), then casino (6%).
In 2019, 17% more games surpassed $5 million in consumer spending versus 2017. And the number of games to top $100 million grew 59% compared to two years prior. Despite the sizable growth in revenues, App Annie also pointed to new models in mobile gaming, like Apple Arcade, which is giving other types of games a chance to thrive. Unfortunately, no third-party firm is able to track Arcade revenues, which will become a glaring blind spot for App Annie in the years ahead.
App Annie also examined other sizable segments of the mobile market for trends, including fintech, retail, streaming and social. Some of the more significant findings included: the fintech app user base growth topping that of traditional banking apps; shopping app downloads saw 20% year-over-year growth to reach 5.4 billion downloads; streaming growth that included 50% sessions in 2019 compared to 2017; and 50% of time spent on mobile was spent in social networking and communication apps.
TikTok was given special attention, given its rapid growth last year. Time spent in the short-form video app grew 210% year-over-year in 2019 globally. Even though eight out of every 10 minutes spent in TikTok were by users in China, the app’s usage skyrocketed in other markets as well, App Annie said.
Industries App Annie identified as being transformed by mobile in 2019 included ridesharing, fast food/food delivery, dating, sports streaming, plus health and fitness. The full report offers a few more details and mobile trends for each of these.
One bigger highlight was that digital-first shopping apps still had 3.2x more average monthly sessions per user compared with apps from traditional brick-and-mortar retailers (dubbed “bricks-and-clicks” apps in the report).
App Annie also compiled its own list of the top apps of 2019 by active users, downloads and revenue. Facebook apps still led by engagement, with WhatsApp, Facebook and Messenger in the top three spots and Instagram as No. 5. And they maintained similar positions by downloads, only swapping places with one another.
Consumer spending was a different story, with Tinder generating the most revenue in 2019, followed by entertainment and streaming apps like Netflix, Tencent Video, iQIYI, YouTube and others.
Not the city, the $57 million-funded cryptocurrency custodian startup. When someone wants to keep tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in Bitcoin, Ethereum, or other coins safe, they put them in Anchorage’s vault. And now they can trade straight from custody so they never have to worry about getting robbed mid-transaction.
With backing from Visa, Andreessen Horowitz, and Blockchain Capital, Anchorage has emerged as the darling of the cryptocurrency security startup scene. Today it’s flexing its muscle and war chest by announcing its first acquisition, crypto risk modeling company Merkle Data.
Anchorage has already integrated Merkle’s technology and team to power today’s launch of its new trading feature. It eliminates the need for big crypto owners to manually move assets in and out of custody to buy or sell, or to set up their own in-house trading. Instead of grabbing some undisclosed spread between the spot price and the price Anchorage quotes its clients, it charges a transparent per transaction fee of a tenth of a percent.
It’s stressful enough trading around digital fortunes. Anchorage gives institutions and token moguls peace of mind throughout the process while letting them stake and vote while their riches are in custody. Anchorage CEO Nathan McCauley tells me “Our clients want to be able to fund a bank account with USD and have it seamlessly converted into crypto, securely held in their custody accounts. Shockingly, that’s not yet the norm–but we’re changing that.”
Founded in 2017 by leaders behind Docker and Square, Anchorage’s core business is its omnimetric security system that takes passwords that can be lost or stolen out of the equation. Instead, it uses humans and AI to review scans of your biometrics, nearby networks, and other data for identity confirmation. Then it requires consensus approval for transactions from a set of trusted managers you’ve whitelisted.
With Anchorage Trading, the startup promises efficient order routing, transparent pricing, and multi-venue liquidity from OTC desks, exchanges, and market makers. “Because trading and custody are directly integrated, we’re able to buy and sell crypto from custody, without having to make risky external transfers or deal with multiple accounts from different providers” says Bart Stephens, founder and managing partner of Blockchain Capital.
Trading isn’t Anchorage’s primary business, so it doesn’t have to squeeze clients on their transactions and can instead try to keep them happy for the long-term. That also sets up Anchorage to be foundational part of the cryptocurrency stack. It wouldn’t disclose the terms of the Merkle Data acquisition, but the Pantera Capital-backed company brings quantative analysts to Anchorage to keep its trading safe and smart.
“Unlike most traditional financial assets, crypto assets are bearer assets: in order to do anything with them, you need to hold the underlying private keys. This means crypto custodians like Anchorage must play a much larger role than custodians do in traditional finance” says McCauley. “Services like trading, settlement, posting collateral, lending, and all other financial activities surrounding the assets rely on the custodian’s involvement, and in our view are best performed by the custodian directly.”
Anchorage will be competing with Coinbase, which offers integrated custody and institutional brokerage through its agency-only OTC desk. Fidelity Digital Assets combines trading and brokerage, but for Bitcoin only. BitGo offers brokerage from custody through a partnership with Genesis Global Trading. But Anchorage hopes its experience handling huge sums, clear pricing, and credentials like membership in Facebook’s Libra Association will win it clients.
McCauley says the biggest threat to Anchorage isn’t competitors, thoguh, but hazy regulation. Anchorage is building a core piece of the blockchain economy’s infrastructure. But for the biggest financial institutions to be comfortable getting involved, lawmakers need to make it clear what’s legal.
One of the enduring truths of big companies is that they aren’t innovative. They are “innovative” in the marketing sense, but fail to ever execute on new ideas, particularly when those ideas cannibalize existing products and revenues.
So it often takes a real competitor to force these incumbent, legacy businesses to evolve in any meaningful way. Usually that change leads to disruption, in the classic way that Clayton Christensen describes in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” An upstart company creates a new technology or business model that is better for an under-served segment of a market, and as that company improves, it competes directly with the incumbent and eventually wins over its market with a vastly superior product.
Unfortunately, real life isn’t so easy, as WeWork and MoviePass have shown us over the past few years.
In both cases, there were incumbents. In movie theaters, you had AMC and the like, which built a business model around ticket sales (shared with movie studios) and food/beverage concessions that targeted occasional customers at a high price point. Meanwhile, in commercial real estate, you had large landowners and family holders who demanded extremely long rent terms at high prices, often with personal financial guarantees from the CEO of the tenant firm.
Rocket Lab is expanding its U.S. footprint, alongside the opening of its first launch site on Wallops Island, Va. The rocket launch startup will open a new corporate headquarters in Long Beach, Calif. at a facility that will also provide some production capabilities, and act as its second Mission Control Center, complementing its existing Mission Control in New Zealand.
Construction on the new facility has already begun, Rocket Lab says, and should be completed in the second quarter of this year. Its production capacity will mean it can put out over a dozen full Electron launch vehicles per year, which should serve the company’s needs in terms of supplying its planned launch cadence of roughly one launch per month from the Wallops Island launch site.
In addition to Electron launch vehicles, the Long Beach facility will also be producing Rocket Lab satellites, which are part of the company’s expanded service offerings. Rocket Lab announced last year that it was moving beyond just offering launches to clients, and will provide end-to-end mission services — including customizable satellite hardware that can be tailored to the needs of clients looking to deploy small satellites for any number of purposes.
Rocket Lab is also going to house its first U.S. Mission Control Center at this Long Beach location, from which it’ll be able to coordinate and manage its launches at Wallops. Between that and its New Zealand-based Mission Control, this should help it manage the increased volume it should ramp up to when launching from both LC-1 in New Zealand and LC-2 at Wallops — and eventually, a second launch pad at its Mahia Peninsula, NZ complex.