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Mangrove Capital’s Mark Tluszcz on the huge mHealth opportunity and why focusing on UX is key

By Natasha Lomas

Mangrove Capital Partners’ co-founder and CEO Mark Tluszcz is brimming with enthusiasm for what’s coming down the pipe from health tech startups.

Populations armed with mobile devices and hungry for verified and relevant information, combined with the promise of big data and AI, is converging, as he sees it, into a massive opportunity for businesses to rethink how healthcare is delivered, both as a major platform to plugging gaps in stretched public healthcare systems and multiple spaces in between — serving up something more specific and intimate.

Think health-focused digital communities, perhaps targeting a single sex or time of life, as we’re increasingly seeing in the femtech space, or health-focused apps and services that can act as supportive spaces and sounding boards that cater to the particular biological needs of different groups of people.

Tluszcz has made some savvy bets in his time. He was an early investor in Skype, turning a $2 million investment into $200 million, and he’s also made a tidy profit backing web building platform Wix, where he remains as chairman. But the long-time, early-stage tech investor has a new focus after a clutch of investments — in period tracking (Flo), AI diagnostics (K Health) and digital therapeutics (Happify) — have garnered enough momentum to make health the dominant theme of Mangrove Capital’s last fund.

“I really don’t think that there’s a bigger area and a more inefficient area today than healthcare,” he tells us. “One of the things that that whole space is missing is just good usability. And that’s something that Internet entrepreneurs do very well.”

Extra Crunch sat down for an in-depth conversation with Tluszcz to dig into the reasons why he’s so excited about mHealth (as Mangrove calls it) and probe him on some of the challenges that arise when building data-led AI businesses with the potential to deeply impact people’s lives.

The fund has also produced a healthcare report setting out some of its thinking.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

TechCrunch: Is the breadth of what can fall in the digital health or mHealth category part of why you’re so excited about the opportunities here?

Mark Tluszcz: I think if you take a step back, even from definitions for a moment, and you look around as an investor — and we as a firm, we happen to be thematically driven but no matter who you are — and you say where are there massive pockets of opportunity? And it’s typically in areas where there’s a lot of inefficiency. And anybody who’s tried to go to the doctor anywhere in Europe or around the world or tried to get an appointment with a therapist or whatever realizes how basically inefficient and arcane that process is. From finding out who the right person is, to getting an appointment and going there and paying for it. So healthcare looks to us like one of those arcane industries — the user experience, so to speak, could be so much better. And combine that with the fact that in most cases we know nothing as individuals about health — unless you read a few books and things. But it’s generally the one place where you’re the least informed in life. So you go see your GP and he or she will tell you something and you’re blindly going to take that pill they’re going to give you because you’re not well informed. You don’t understand it.

So I think that’s the exciting part about it. If I now look around and say if I now look at all the industries in the world — and of course there’s interesting stuff happening in financial services, and it continues to happen on commerce, and many, many places — but I really don’t think that there’s a bigger area and a more inefficient area today than healthcare.

You combine that with the power that we’re beginning to see in all these mobile devices — i.e. I have it in my pocket at all times. So that’s factor two. So one is the industry is potentially big and inefficient; two is there’s tools that we have easy to access it. And there has been — I think again — a general frustration on healthcare online I would say of when you go into a search engine, or you go into Web MD or Google or whatever, the general feedback it gives you is you’re about to have a heart attack or you’re about to die because those products are not designed specifically for that. So you as a consumer are confused because you’re not feeling well so you go online. The next day you go see your doctor and he or she says you didn’t go to Google did you, right? I know you’re probably freaked out at this point. So the second point is the tools are there.

Third I’d say is that artificial intelligence, machine learning, which is kind of in the process of gaining a lot of momentum, has made it that we’re able to start to dream that we could one day crunch sufficient data to get new insights into it. So I think you put those three factors together and say this seems like it could be pretty big, in terms of a space.

One of the things that that whole space is missing is just good usability. And that’s something that Internet entrepreneurs do very well. It’s figure out that usability side of it. How do I make that experience more enjoyable or better or whatever? In fact, you see it in fintech. One of the reasons, largely, that these neobanks are winning is that their apps are much better than what you have from the incumbents. There’s no other reason for it. And so I think there’s this big opportunity that’s out there, and it says all these factors lead you to this big, big industry. And then yes, that industry in itself is extremely large — all the way from dieting apps, you might think, all the way to healthy eating apps to longevity apps, to basic information about a particular disease, to basic general practitioner information. You could then break it down into female-specific products, male-specific products — so the breadth is very, very big.

But I think the common core of that is we as humans are getting more information and knowledge about how we are, and that is going to drive, I think, a massive adoption of these products. It’s knowledge, it’s ease of use, and it’s accessibility that just make it a dream come true if we can pull all these pieces together. And this is just speaking about the developed world. This gets even bigger potentially if I go to the third world countries where they don’t even have access to basic healthcare information or basic nutritional information. So I would say that the addressable market in investors’ jargon is just huge. Much more so than in any other industry that I know of today.

Is the fund trying to break that down into particular areas of focus within that or is the fund potentially interested in everything that falls under this digital health/mHealth umbrella?

We are a generalist investment firm. As a generalist investment firm we find these trends and then anything within these trends is going to pique our interest. Where we have made some investments has been really in three areas so far, and we’ll continue to broaden that base.

We’ve made an investment into a company called Flo. They are the number one app in the world for women to help track their menstrual cycles. So you look at that and go can that be big, not big, I don’t know. I can tell you they have 35M monthly active users, so it’s massive.

Now you might say, ‘Why do women need this to help them track their cycles because they’ve been tracking these menstrual cycles other ways for thousands of years?’ This is where, as an investor, you have to combine something like that with new behavioral patterns in people. And so if you look at the younger generation of people today they’re a generation that’s been growing up on notifications — the concept of being notified to do something. Or reminded to do something. And I think these apps do a lot of that as well.

My wife, who’s had two children, might say — which she did before I invested in the company — why would I ever need such an app? And I told her, “Unfortunately you’re the wrong demographic… because when I speak to an 18- year-old she says, ‘Ah, so cool! And by the way do you have an app to remind me to brush my teeth?’ So notifications is what I think what makes it interesting for that younger demographic.

And then curiously enough — this is again the magic of what technology can bring and great products can bring — Flo is a company created by two brothers. They had no particular direct experience of the need for the app. They knew the market was big. They obviously hired women who were more contextually savvy to the problem but they were able to build this fantastic product. And did a bunch of things within the product that they had taken from their previous lives and made it so that the user experience was just so much better than looking at a calendar on your phone. So today 35M women every month use this product tells you that there’s something there — that the tech is coming and that people want to use it. And so that’s one type of a problem, and you can think about a number of others that both males and females will have — for whom making that single user experience better could be interesting. And I could go from that to ten things that might be interesting for women and ten things that might specifically be interesting for men — you can imagine breaking that down. This is why, again, the space is so big. There are so many things that we deal with as men and women [related to health and biology].

Now for me the question is, as a venture investor, will that sub-set be big enough?

And that again is no different than if I was looking at any other industry. If I was in the telecommunications industry — well is voice calling big? Is messaging big enough? Is conference calling big enough? All that is around calling, but you start breaking it down and, in some cases, we’re going to conclude that it’s big enough or that it’s not big enough. But we’re going to have to go through the process of looking at these. And we’re seeing these thematic things pop up all over the place right now. All over Europe and in the U.S. as well.

It did take us a little time to say is this big enough [in the case of Flo] but obviously getting pregnant is big enough. And as a business, think about it: once you know a woman’s menstrual cycle process and then she starts feeding into the system, ‘I am pregnant; I’m going to have a child,’ you start having a lot of information about her life and you can feed a lot of other things to her. Because you know when she’s going to have a child, you can propose advice as well around here’s how the first few months go. Because, as we know, when you have your first child, you’re generally a novice. You’re discovering what all that means. And again you have another opportunity to re-engage with that user. So that’s something that I think is interesting as a space.

So the thematic space is going to be big — the femtech side and the male tech side. All of that’s going to play a big role. One could argue always there are the specific apps that are going to be the winners; we can argue about that. But right now I guess Flo is working very well because those people haven’t found such a targeted user experience in the more generic place. They feel as if they’re in a community of like-minded women. They have forums, they can talk, they have articles they can read, and it’s just a comfortable place for them to spend some time.

So Flo is the first example of a very specific play that we did in healthcare about a year and a half ago. The first investment, in fact, that we made in healthcare.

The second example is opposed to that — it’s a much more general play in healthcare. It’s a company called K Health . Now K Health looked at the world… and said what happens when I wake up at night and I have a pain and I do go to Google and I think I’m going to have a heart attack…. So can I build a product that would mimic, if you will, a doctor? So that I might be able to create an experience when I can have immediacy of information and immediacy of diagnostics on my phone. And then I could figure out what to do with that.

This is an Israeli company and they now have 5 million users in the U.S. that are using the app, which is downloadable from the U.S. app story only. What they did is they spent a year and a half building the technology — the AI and the machine learning — because what they did is they bought a very large dataset from an insurance company. The company sold it to them anonymized. It was personal health records for 2.5 million people for 20, years so we had a lot of information. A lot of this stuff was in handwritten notes. It wasn’t well structured. So it took them a long time to build the software to be able to understand all this information and break it down into billions of data parts that they could now manipulate. And the user experience is just like a WhatsApp chat with a robot.

Their desire is not to do what some other companies are doing, which is ‘answer ten questions and maybe you should talk to a doctor via Skype.’ Because their view was that — at the end of the day — in every developed country there are shortages of doctors. That’s true for the U.K.; it’s true for the U.S. If you predict out to 2030, there’s a huge hole in the number of GPs. Part of that is also totally understandable; who would want to be a GP today? I mean your job in the U.S. and the U.K. is you’re essentially a sausage factory. Come in and you’ve got 3 minutes with your customer. It’s not a great experience for the doctor or the person who goes to the doctor.

So K Health built this fantastic app and what they do is they diagnose you and they say based on the symptoms here’s what K thinks you have, and, by the way, here’s a medicine that people like you were treated with. So there’s an amazing amount of information that you get as a user, and that’s entirely free as a user experience. Their vision is that the diagnostic part will always be free.

There are 5 million people in the US.. using the app who are diagnosing. There are 25 questions that you go through with the robot, ‘K,’ and she diagnoses you. We call that a virtual doctor’s visit. We’re doing 15,000 of those a day. Think about the scale in which we’ve been able to go in a very short time. And all that’s free.

To some extent it’s great for people who can’t necessarily afford doctors — again, that’s not typically a European problem. Because socialized medicine in Europe has made that easy. But it is a problem in the U.S.; it is a problem in Africa, Asia, India and South America. There’s about 4 billion people around the world for whom speaking to a doctor is a problem.

K Health’s view is they’re bringing healthcare free to the world. And then ultimately how they make money will be things like if you want to speak to a doctor because you need a prescription for drugs. The doctor has access to K’s diagnostic and either agrees or disagrees with it and gives you a prescription to do that. And what we’re seeing is an interesting relationship which is where we wanted it to be. Of those 15,000 free doctor visits, less than one percent of those turn into I want to speak to a human and hence pay $15 (that’s the price they’re charging in the U.S. to actually converse with a human). In the U.S., by the way, about a quarter of the population — 75 million people — don’t have complementary insurance. That when they go to the doctor it’s $150. Isn’t that a crazy thing? You can’t afford complementary insurance but you could pay the highest price to go see a doctor. Such madness.

And then there’s a whole element of it’s simple, and it’s convenient. You’re sitting at home thinking, “Okay, I’m not feeling so well” and you’ve got to call a doctor, get an appointment, drive however long it takes, and wait in line with other sick people. So what we’re finding is people are discovering new ways of accessing information…. Human doctors also don’t have time to give empathy in an ever stretched socialized medicine country [such as in Spain]. So what we’re seeing also is a very quick change in user behavior. Two and a half years ago [when K Health started], many people would say I don’t know about that. Now they’re saying convenience — at least in Europe — is why that’s interesting. In the U.S. it’s price.

So that’s the second example; much more general company but one which has the ability to come and answer a very basic need: ‘I’m not feeling well.’

We have 5M users which means we have data on 5M people. On average, a GP in his life will see about 50,000 patients. If you think about just the difference — if you come to K, K has seen 5M people, your GP Max has seen 50k. So, statistically, the app is likely to be better. We know today, through benchmarks and all sorts of other stuff, is that the app is more accurate than humans.

So you look at where that’s heading in general medicine we’ve for a long time created this myth that doctors spent eight years learning a lot of information and as a result they’re really brainy people. They are brainy people but I believe that that learning process is going to be done faster and better through a machine. That’s our bet.

The third example of an investment that we’ve made in the health space is a company called Happify . They’re a company that had developed like a gamification of online treatment if you have certain sicknesses. So, for example, if you’re a little depressive you can use their app and the gamification process and they will help you feel healthier. So so far you’re probably scatching your head saying ‘I don’t know about that…” But that was how they started and then they realized that hang on you can either do that or you can take medicine; you can pop a pill. In fact what many doctors suggest for people who have anxiety or depression.

So then they started engaging with the drugs companies and they realized that these drug companies have a problem which is the patent expiry of their medication. And when patents expire you lose a lot of money. And so what’s very typical in the pharma industry is if you’re able to modify a medicine you can typically either extend or have a new patent. So Happify, what they’ve done with the pharma companies now, is said instead of modifying the medicine and adding something else to it — another molecule for instance — could we associate treatments which is medicine plus online software? Like a digital experience. And that has now been dubbed Digital Therapeutics — DTx — is the common term being used for them. And this company Happify is one of the first in the world to do that. They signed a very large deal with a company called Sanofi — one of the big drug makers. And that’s what they’re going to roll out. When doctors say to their patients I’m diagnosing you with anxiety or depression. Sanofi has a particular medication and they’re going to bundle it now with an online experience — and in all the tests that they’ve done, actually, when you combine the two, the patient is better off at the end of this treatment. So it’s just another example of why this whole space is so large. We never thought we’d be in any business with a pharma business because we’re tech investors. But here all of a sudden the ability to marry tech with medication creates a better end user experience for the patient. And that’s very powerful in itself.

So those are just three areas where we have actually put money in the health space but there are a number of areas that one looks at — either general or more specific.

Yeah it is big. And I think for us at least the more general it stays and it’s seen the more open minded we’re going to be. Because one thing you have to be as an investor, at least early stage like ours, completely open minded. And you can’t bias your process by your own experience. It has to stay very broad.

It’s also why I think clinician led companies and investors are not good — because they come with their own baggage. I think in this case, just like in any other industry, you have to say I’m not going to be polluted by the past and for me to change the experience going forward in any given area I have to fundamentally be ready to reinvent it.

You could propose a Theranos example as a counterpoint to that — but do you think investors in the health space have got over any fallout from that high profile failure at this point?

With that company one could argue who’s fault it really was. Clearly the founder lied and did all sorts of stuff but her investors let her do it. So to some extent the checks and balances just weren’t in place. I’m only saying that because I don’t think that should be the example by which we judge everything else. That’s just a case of a fraudster and dumb investors. That’s going to continue to exist in the future forever and who knows we might come across some of those but I don’t think it’s the benchmark by which one should be judging if healthcare is a good or viable investment. Again I look at Flo, 35M active users. I look at K Health, 5M users in the US who are now beginning to use doctors, order medicine through the platform. I think the simplicity, the ease of use, for me make it that it’s undeniable that this industry’s going to be completely shaken up through this tech. And we need it because at least in the Western world are health systems are so stretched they’re going to break.

Europe vs the US is interesting — because of the existence of public healthcare vs a lack of public healthcare. What difference does that make to the startup opportunities in health in Europe vs the US? Perhaps in Europe things have to be more supplementary to public healthcare systems but perhaps ultimately there isn’t that much difference if healthcare opportunities are increasingly being broken out and people are being encouraged to be more proactive about looking after their own health needs?

Yeah. Take K Health — where you look at it and say from a use example it’s clear that everywhere in the world, including US and Europe, people are going to recognize the simple ease of use and the convenience of it. If I had to spend money to then maybe make money then I would say maybe the US is slightly better because there’s 75M people who can’t afford a doctor and I might be able to sell them something more whereas in Europe I might not. I think it becomes a commercial question more than anything else. Certainly in the UK the NHS [National Health Service] is trying to do a lot of things. It is not a great user experience when you go to the doctor there. But at the end of the day I don’t think the difference between Europe-US makes much of a difference. I think this idea that what these apps want to tend towards — which is healthcare for everybody at a super cheap or free price-point — I think we have an advantage in Europe of thinking of it that way because that’s what we’ve had all our lives. So to some extent what I want to create online is socialized medicine for the world — through K Health. And I learnt that because I live here [in Europe].

Somebody in the US — not the 75M because they have nothing — but all the others, maybe they don’t think there’s a problem because they don’t recognize it. Our view with K Health is the opportunity to make socialized medicine a global phenomenon and hoping that in 95% of the cases access to the app is all you need. And in 5% of the cases you’re going to go the specialists that need to see you — and then maybe there’s enough money to go around for everybody.

And of course, as an investor, we’re interested in global companies. Again you see the theme: Flo, K Health, Happify, all those have a potential global footprint right off the bat.

I think with healthcare there are going to be play that could be national specific and maybe still going to be decent investments. You see in that in financial services. The neo banks are very country specific — whenever they try to get out of their country, like N26, they realize that life isn’t so easy when you go somewhere else. But healthcare I think we have an easier path to going global because there is such a pent up demand and a need for you to just feel good about yourself… Most of the people who go through [the K Health diagnostic] process just want peace of mind. If 95% of the 15k people who go through that process right now just go, “Phew, I feel okay” then we’ve accomplished something quite significant. And imagine if it’s not 15,000 it’s about 150,000 a day, which seems to be quite an easy goal. So healthcare allows us to dream that TAM — in investor terms, target addressable market — is big. I can realistically think with any one of the three companies that I’ve mentioned to you that we could have hundreds of millions of users around the world. Because there’s the need.

There are different regulatory regimes across markets, there are different cultural contexts around the world — do you see this as a winner takes all scenario for health platforms?

No. Not at all. I think ultimately it’s the user — in terms of his or her experience in using an app — that’s going to matter. Flo is not the only menstrual cycle app in the world; it just happens to be by far the biggest. But there’s others. So that’s the perfect example. I don’t think there’s going to be one winner takes it all.

There’s also (UK startup) Babylon Health which sounds quite similar to K Health…

Babylon does something different. They’re essentially a symptom checker designed to push you to have a Skype call with a human doctor…. It answers a bunch of questions, it’ll say, “Well, we think you have this, let’s connect you to a real doctor.” We did not want to invest in a company that ever did that because the real problem is there just aren’t enough doctors and then frankly you and I are not going to want to talk to a doctor from Angola. Because what’s going to happen is there aren’t enough doctors in the Western countries and the solution for those type of companies — Babylon is one, there’s others doing similar things — but if you become what we call lead generation just for doctors where you get a commission for bringing people to speak to a doctor you’re just displacing the problem from in your neighborhood to, broadly speaking, where are the humans? And I think as I said humans, they have their fallacies. If you really want to scale things big and globally you have to let software do it.

No it’s not a winner takes all — for sure.

So the vision is that this stuff starts as a supplement to existing healthcare systems and gradually scales?

Correct. I’ll give you an example in the U.S. with K Health. They have a deal with the second largest insurance company called Anthem. Their go-to-market brand is called Blue Cross, Blue Shield. It’s the second largest one in America… so why is this insurance company interested? Because they know that

  1. There’s not enough doctors.
  2. That the health system in the U.S. is under stress
  3. If they could reduce the amount of doctor’s visits by promoting an app like K, that’s financially beneficial to them.

So they’re going to be proposing it, in various forms, to all their customers by saying, “Before you go see a doctor, why don’t you try K?”

In this particular case with K there’s revenue opportunities from the insurance companies and also directly from the consumer, which makes it also interesting.

You did say different regions, different countries have different systems — yes absolutely and there’s no question that going international requires work. However, having said that, I would say a European, an Indonesian and a Brazilian are largely similar. There’s sometimes this fallacy that Asians, for instance, are so different from us as Western Europeans. And the truth is not really — when you look at it down into the DNA and the functions of the body and stuff like that. Which you do have to do, though. If we were to take K to Indonesia, for example, you do have to make sure that your AI engine has enough data to be able to diagnose some local stuff.

I’ll give you an example. When we launched K in the U.S. and we started off with New York, one of things you have to be able to diagnose is called Lyme disease which is what you get from a tick that bites you. Very, very prevalent in the Greater New York area. Not so much anywhere else in the States. But in New York, if you don’t have it it looks like a cold and then you get very sick. That’s very much a regional thing that you have to have. And so if we were to go to Indonesia we’d have to have thing like Malaria and Dengue. But all that is not so difficult. But yes, there’s some customization.

There are also certain conditions that can be more common for certain ethnicities. There are also differences in how women experience medical conditions vs men. So there can be a lot of issues around how localized health data is…

I would say that that is a very small problem that is a must to be addressed, but it’s a much smaller problem than you think it is. Much smaller. For instance, in the male to female thing — of course medical sometimes plays differently — but when you have a database of 5 million of which 3 million are women, and 2 million are men, you already have that data embedded. It is true that medications work better with certain races also. But again very tiny, very small examples of those. Most doctors know it.

At the big scale that may look very small but to an individual patient if a system is not going to pick up on their condition or prescribe them the right medicine that’s obviously catastrophic from their point of view…

Of course.

Which is why, in the healthcare space, when you’re using AI and data-driven tools to do diagnosis there’s a lot of risk — and that’s part of the consideration for everyone playing in this space. So then the question is how do you break down that risk, how do you make that as small as possible and how do you communicate it to the users — if the proposition is free healthcare with some risk vs. not being able to afford going to the doctor at all?

I appreciate that, as a journalist, you’re trying to say this is a massive risk. I can tell you that as somebody who’s involved in these businesses it is a business risk we have to take into consideration but it is, by far, not insurmountable. We clearly have a responsibility as businesses to say: if I’m going to go to South East Asia, I need to be sure that I cover all the ‘weird’ things that we would not have in our database somewhere else. So I need to do that. How I go about doing that, obviously, is the secret sauce of each company. But you simply cannot launch your product in that region if you don’t solve — in this case Malaria and Dengue disease. It doesn’t make sense [for a general health app]. You’d have too many flaws and people will stop using you.

I don’t think that’s so much the case with Flo, for instance… But all these entrepreneurs who are designing these companies are fully aware that it isn’t a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all — but it is close to that. When you look at the exceptions. We’re not talking about I have to redo my database because 30% or 20% — it’s much, much smaller than that.

And, by the way, at the end of the day, the market will be the judge. In our case, when you go from an Israeli company into the U.S. and you have partners like Blue Cross, Blue Shield, they’ve tested the crap out of your product. And then you’re going to say well I’m going to do this now in Indonesia — well you get partners locally who’re going to help you do that.

One of the drawbacks about healthcare is, I would say, making sure that your product works in all these countries. And doesn’t have holes in the diagnostic side of it.

Which seems in many cases to boil down to getting the data. And that can be a big challenge. As you mentioned with K Health, there was also the need to structure the data as well — but fundamentally it’s taken Israeli population data and is using it in the U.S. You would say that model is going to scale? There are some counter examples, such as Google-owned DeepMind, which has big designs on using AI for healthcare diagnostics and has put a lot of effort into getting access to population-level health data from the NHS in the U.K., when — at the same time — Google has acquired a database of health records from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. So there does seem to be a lot of effort going into trying to get very localized data but it’s challenging. Google perhaps has a head start because it’s Google. So the question then is how do startups get the data they need to address these kinds of opportunities?

If we’re just looking at K Health then obviously it’s a big challenge because you do have to get data in a way. But I would say again your example as well you have a U.S. database and does it match with a UK database. Again it largely does.

In that case the example is quite specific because the dataset Google has from the department of Veterans Affairs skews heavily male (93.6%). So they really do have almost no female data.

But that’s a bad dataset. That’s not anything else but a bad dataset.

It’s instructive that they’re still using it, though. Maybe that illustrates the challenge of getting access to population-level healthcare data for AI model making.

Maybe it does. But I don’t think this is one of those insurmountable things. Again, what we’ve done is we’ve bought a database that had data on 2.5 million patients, data over 20 years. I think that dataset equates extremely well. We’ve now seen it in U.S. markets for over a year. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback. We beat human doctors every time in tests. And so you look at it and you say they’re just business problems that we have to solve. But what we’re seeing is the consumer market is saying holy shit this is just such a better experience than I’ve ever had before.

So the human body — again — is not that complex. Most of the things that we catch are not that complex. And by the way we’ve grown our database — from the 2.5M that we bought we now have 5M. So we now have 2.5M Americans mixing into that database. And the way they diagnose you is they say based on your age, your size, you don’t smoke and so on — perhaps they say they have 300,000 people in their database like you and they’re benchmarking my symptoms against those people. So I think the smart companies are going to do these things very smartly. But you have to know what you’re using as a user as well… If you’re using that vs just a basic symptom checker — that I don’t think is a particularly great new user experience. But some companies are going to be successful doing that. At the end the great dream is how do you bring all this together and how do you give the consumer a fundamentally better choice and better information. That’s K Health.

Why couldn’t Google do the same thing? I don’t know. They just don’t think about it.

That’s a really interesting question — because Google is making big moves in health. They’re consolidating all their projects under one Google Health unit. Amazon is also increasingly interested in the space. What do you make of this big tech interest? Is that a threat or an opportunity for health startups?

Well if you think of it as an investor they’re all obviously buyers of the companies you’re going to build. So that’s a long term opportunity to sell your business. On the shorter term, does it make sense to invest in companies if all of a sudden the mammoth big players are there? By the way, that has been true for many, many other sectors as well. When I first invested in Skype in the early days people would say the telecom guys are going to crush you. Well they didn’t. But all of a sudden telecom, communication became the current that the Internet guys wanted — that’s why eBay ultimately bought us and why they all had their own messenger.

What the future’s made of we don’t know, but what we do know is that consumers want just the best experience and sometimes the best experience comes from people who are very innovative and very hungry as opposed to people who are working in very large companies. Venture capitalists are always investing in companies that somehow are competing one way or another with Amazon, Facebook, Google and all the big guys. It’s just that when you focus your energy on one thing you tend to do it better than if you don’t. And I’m not suggesting that those companies are not investing a lot of money. They are. And that’s because they realize that one of the currencies of the future is the ability to provide healthcare information, treatment and things like that.

You look at a large retail store like Wal-mart in America. Wal-mart serves largely a population that makes $50k or less. The lower income category in North America. But what are they doing to make you more loyal to them? They’re now starting to build into every Wal-mart doctor’s offices. Why would they do that? Is it because they actually know that if you make $50k or less there’s a high chance you don’t have an insurance and there’s a high chance that you can’t afford to go see a doctor. So they’re going to use that to say, “Hey, if you shop with us, instead of paying $150 for a doctor, it’ll be cheaper.” And we’re beginning to see so many examples like this — where all these companies are saying actually healthcare is the biggest and most important thing that somebody thinks about every day. And if we want to make them loyal to our brand we need to offer something that’s in the healthcare space. So the conclusion of why we’re so excited it we’re seeing it happen in real life.

Wal-mart does that — so when Amazon starts buying an online pharmacy I get why they’re doing that. They want to connect with you on an emotional level which is when you’re not feeling well.

So no, I don’t think we’re particularly worried about them. You have to respect they’re large companies, they have a lot of money and things like that. But that’s always been the case. We think that some of these will likely be bought by those players, some of those will likely build their own businesses. At the end of the day it’s who’s going to get that user experience right.

Google of course would like us all to believe that because they’re the search engine of the world they have the first rights to become the health search engine of the world. I tend to think that’s not true. Actually if you look at the history of Google they were the search engine of the world until they forgot about Amazon. And nowadays if you want to buy anything physical where do you search first? You don’t search on Google anymore — you search on Amazon.

But the space is big and there’s a lot of great entrepreneurs and Europe has a lot to offer I think in terms of taking our history of socialized medicine and saying how can tech power that to make it a better experience?

So what should entrepreneurs that are just thinking about this space — what should they be focusing on in terms of things to fix?

Right now the hottest are the three that I mentioned — because those are the ones that we’ve put money into and we’ve put money in because we think those are the hottest areas. I just think that anything where you feel deep conviction about or you’ve had some basic experience with the issue and the problem.

I simply do not think that clinicians can make this change — in any sector. If you look at those companies I mentioned none of the founders are clinicians in any way shape or form. And that’s why they’re successful. Now I’m not suggesting that you don’t have to have doctors on your staff. For sure. At K Health, we have 30 doctors…. What we’re trying to do is change the experience. So the founder, for instance. was a founder of a company called Vroom that buys and sells cars online in the States. When he started he didn’t know a whole lot about healthcare but he said to himself what I know is I don’t like the user experience. It’s a horrible user experience. I don’t like going to the doctor. I can change that.

So I would say if you’re heading into that space your first pre-occupation is how am I going to change the current user experience in a way that’s meaningful. Because that’s the only thing that people care about.

How is possible that two guys could come up with Flo? They were just good product people.

For me, that’s the driving factor — if you’re going to go into this, go into it saying you’re there to break an experience and make it just a way better place to be.

On the size of the opportunity I have seen some suggestions that health is overheated in investment terms. But perhaps that’s more true in the U.S. than Europe?

Any time an investor community gets hold of a theme and makes it the theme of the month or the year — like fintech was for ten years — I think it becomes overfunded because everybody ploughs into that. I could say yes to that statement sure. Lot of players, lot of actors. Money’s pouring in because people believe that the outcome could be big. So I don’t think it’s overheated. I think that we’ve only scratched the surface by doing certain things.

Some of the companies in the healthcare space that are either thinking of going public or are going public are companies that are pretty basic companies around connecting you with doctors online, etc. So I think that the innovation is really, really coming. As AI becomes real and we’re able to manage the data in an effective way… But again you’ve got to get the user experience right.

Flo in my experience — why it’s better than anything else — one is it’s just a great user experience. And then they have a forum on their app, and the forum is anonymized. And this is curious right. I think they anonymized it without knowing what it would do. And what it did was it allowed women to talk about stuff that perhaps they were not comfortable talking about stuff if people knew who they were. Number one issue? Abortion.

There’s a stigma out there around abortion and so by anonymizing the chat forum all of a sudden it created this opportunity for people to just exchange an experience. So that’s why I say the user experience for me is just at the core of that revolution that’s coming.

Why should it be such a horrific experience to be able to talk about that subject? Why should women be put in that position? So that’s why I think user experience is going to be so key to that.

So that’s why we’re excited. And of course the gambit is large. You think about the examples I gave — you can think of dietary examples, men’s health examples. When men turn 50 things start happening. Little things. But there’s at least 15 of those things that are 100% predictable… I just turned 50 and given there’s so much disinformation online I don’t know what’s true. So I think again there’s a fantastic opportunity for somebody to build companies around that theme — again, probably male and female separate.

Menopause would be another obvious one.

Exactly… You don’t know who you can talk to in many cases. So that’s another opportunity. And wow there are so many things out there. And when I go online today I‘m generally not sure if I can believe what I read unless it’s from a source that I can trust.

For 50 year old men erectile dysfunction is another taboo — a bit like the abortion taboo is for women. Men don’t even talk to their male friends about it… So if there was a place where you could go and learn about it I think there’s a big opportunity. I don’t think erectile dysfunction is a business, but I think how men age is one.

So it’s opportunities for communities around particular health/well-being issues.

Exactly. Because we’re looking for truths when we’re going through that experience ourselves.

The addressable market is massive. There’s men turning 50 every year and they’re probably all pretty interested to find out what are the ten or 15 things that could go wrong for them. There’s a lot of opportunities. It’s so broad. The challenge is you have to think about building it for people who are 50. You’re not building it for an 18-year-old. So the user experience again has to be somewhat different probably. And the healthcare goes all the way to the seniors. What are you looking for when you’re 75? So you see it treats anywhere from certainly from 18 all the way up across a broad-based spectrum of things. So it’s one of our major themes for the next five to ten years.

And so the idea of it being overheated in investment terms is a bit too abstract because there are specific areas that are very underinvested — like femtech. So it’s a case of spotting the particular bits of the healthcare opportunity that need more attention.

Yes. You’ve described it perfectly. In our more simpleton terms, we look at it and say if I look at the previous hot industry — fintech — you would end up with companies doing credit cards, companies doing bank accounts, companies doing lending, companies doing recovery — so many pieces of the value chain. In this case the value chain is humans.

We are even more complex than financial services have ever been, so I think the opportunities are even broader to break it down and build businesses that are going to satisfy certain sexes, maybe certain demographics, certain ages and all these kind of things that are out there. We are just so different.

DSP Concepts raises $14.5M for its Audio Weaver platform

By Anthony Ha

DSP Concepts — a startup whose Audio Weaver software is used by companies as varied as Tesla, Porsche, GoPro and Braun Audio — is announcing that it has raised $14.5 million in Series B funding.

The startup goal, as explained to me by CEO Chin Beckmann and CTO Paul Beckmann (yep, they’re a husband-and-wife founding team), is to create the standard framework that companies use to develop their audio processing software.

To that end, Chin told me they were “picky about who we wanted on the B round, we wanted it to represent the support and endorsement of the industry.”

So the round was led by Taiwania Capital, but it also includes investments from the strategic arms of DSP Concepts’ industry partners — BMW i Ventures (which led the Series A), the Sony Innovation Growth Fund by Innovation Growth Ventures, MediaTek Ventures, Porsche Ventures and the ARM IoT Fund.

Paul said Audio Weaver started out as the “secret weapon” of the Beckmanns’ consulting business, which he could use to “whip out” the results of an audio engineering project. At a certain point, consulting customers started asking him, “Hey, how about you teach me how to use that?,” so they decided to launch a startup focused on the Audio Weaver platform.

Audio Weaver - AWE Designer

Paul described the software as a “graphical block diagram editor.” Basically, it provides a way for audio engineers to combine and customize different software modules for audio processing.

“Audio is still in the Stone Ages compared to other industries,” he said. “Suppose you’re building a product with a touchscreen — are you going write the graphics from scratch or use a framework like Qt?”

Similarly, he suggested that while many audio engineers are still “down in the weeds writing code,” they can take advantage of Audio Weaver’s graphical interface to piece everything together, as well as the company’s “hundreds of different modules — pre-written, pre-tested, pre-optimized functions to build up your system.”

For example, Paul said that by using the Audio Weaver platform, DSP Concepts engineers could test out “hundreds of ideas” for algorithms for reducing wind noise in the footage captured by GoPro cameras, then ultimately “hand the algorithms over to GoPro,” whose team could them plug the algorithms into their software and modify it themselves.

The Beckmanns said the company also works closely with chip manufacturers to ensure that audio software will work properly on any device powered by a given chipset.

Other modules include TalkTo, which is designed to give voice assistants like Alexa “super-hearing,” so that they can still isolate voice commands and cancel out all the other noise in loud environments, even rock concerts. (You can watch a TalkTo demo in the video below.)

DSP Concepts has now raised more than $25 million in total funding.

 

Equity is not always the answer

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week was a fun combination of early-stage and late-stage news, with companies as young as seed stage and as old as PE-worthy joining our list of topics.

Danny and Alex were back on hand to chat once again. Just in case you missed it, they had some fun talking Tesla yesterday, and there are new Equity videos on YouTube. Enjoy!

Here’s what the team argued about this week:

  • HungryPanda raises $20 million from 83North and Felix Capital. With a focus on Chinese food, Chinese language users and Chinese payment options like Alipay, it’s a neat play. According to TechCrunch, the service is live in 31 cities in the U.K., Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S and is targeting $200 million in GMV by early Summer.
  • The Org raises $8.5 million, ChartHop raises $5 million. Hailing from two different product perspectives, these two org chart-focused companies both raised capital Thursday morning. That made them interesting to Alex as they formed yet another startup cluster, and Danny was transfixed by their differing starting points as businesses, positing that they will possibly move closer to each other over time.
  • DigitalOcean’s $100 million debt raise. The round — an addition of capital to a nearly profitable, SMB-focused cloud infra provider — split our hosts, with one leaning more toward a PE-exit and the other an IPO. Whether it can drive margins in the smaller-spend cloud customer segment will be critical to watch in the coming months.
  • (For more on venture debt writ large, head here.)
  • And finally, the E-Trade sale to Morgan Stanley, and what it might mean for Robinhood’s valuation. As Danny points out, the startup has found a good business in selling the order flow of its customers. Alex weighed in that the company has more revenue scaling to do before it grows into its last private valuation. So long as the market stays good, however, Robinhood is probably in good shape.

Equity is nearly three years old, and we have some neat stuff coming up that you haven’t heard about yet. Stay tuned, and thank you for sticking with us for so long.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Where top VCs are investing in manufacturing and warehouse robotics

By Arman Tabatabai

Robotics and automation tools are now foundational parts of warehouses and manufacturing facilities around the world. Unlike many other robotics and AI use cases, the technology has moved well beyond the theoretical into practice and is used by small suppliers and large companies like Amazon and Walmart.

There’s no doubt that automation will transform every step of the supply chain, from manufacturing to fulfillment to shipping and logistics. The only question is how long such a revolution will take.

There’s still plenty of market left to transform and lots of room for new players to redefine different verticals, even with many of the existing leaders having already staked their claim. Naturally, VCs are plenty eager to invest millions in the technology. In 2019 alone, manufacturing, machinery and automation saw roughly 800-900 venture-backed fundraising rounds, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, close to two-thirds of which were still early-stage (pre-seed to Series B) investments.

With our 2020 Robotics+AI sessions event less than two weeks away, we’ve decided to perform temperature checks across some of the hottest robotics sub-verticals to see which trends are coming down the pipe and where checks are actually being written. Just as we did with construction robotics last week, this time, we asked six leading VCs who actively invest in manufacturing automation robotics to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunities in the sector:

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

Which trends are you most excited about in manufacturing/warehouse automation robotics from an investing perspective?

Volocopter extends Series C funding to $94M with backing from logistics giant DB Schenker and others

By Darrell Etherington

Autonomous air mobility company Volocopter has added to the Series C funding round it announced in September 2019. The German electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft maker announced €50 million ($54 million at today’s exchange rate) in funding at the time, and the C round has now grown to €87 million ($94 million) thanks to new lead investor DB Schenker, a German logistics company with operations all over the world.

This round also includes participation by Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Group, as well as the venture arm of its parent MS&AD, along with TransLink Capital . Existing investors, including Lukasz Gadowski and btov, also participated in this round extension.

With this new funding, Volocopter brings its total raised to around $132 million, and it says it will use the newly acquired capital to help certify its VoloCity aircraft, its air taxi eVTOL designed to transport people, which is on track to become the company’s first-ever vehicle licensed for commercial operation. Meanwhile, Volocopter will also use the new funds to help continue development of a next-generation iteration of its VoloDrone, which is the cargo-carrying version of its aircraft. It aims to use VoloDrone to expand its market to include logistics, as well as construction, city infrastructure and agriculture.

Already, Volocopter has formed partnerships with companies including John Deere for pilots of its VoloDrone, but it says that a second-generation version of the vehicle will help it commercialize the drone. On the VoloCity side, the company recently flew a demonstration flight in Singapore, and then announced they’d be working with Grab on a feasibility study about air taxi services for potential deployment across Southeast Asia in key cities.

Alongside this round extension, Volocopter adds two advisory board members — Yifan Li from Geely Holding Group, which led the first tranche of this round closed in September, and DB Schenker CEO Jochen Thewes. Both of these are key strategic partners from investors who stand to benefit the company not only in terms of funding, but also in terms of supply-side and commercialization.

Gaming-focused investment firm Bitkraft closes in on at least $140 million for its second fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.

For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.

Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.

The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.

Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.

While at Goldman, Baier-Lentz worked on the $67 billion Dell acquisition of EMC and the $34 billion acquisition of RedHat by IBM.

The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.

As Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners told TechCrunch last year:

“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”

Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.

For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”

Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz

Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them. 

“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”

It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.

Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.

In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.

“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”

SpaceX alumni are helping build LA’s startup ecosystem

By Jonathan Shieber

During the days when Snapchat’s popularity was booming, investors thought the company would become the anchor for a new Los Angeles technology scene.

Snapchat, they hoped, would spin-off entrepreneurs and angel investors who would reinvest in the local ecosystem and create new companies that would in turn foster more wealth, establishing LA as a hub for tech talent and venture dollars on par with New York and Boston.

In the ensuing years, Los Angeles and its entrepreneurial talent pool has captured more attention from local and national investors, but it’s not Snap that’s been the source for the next generation of local founders. Instead, several former SpaceX employees have launched a raft of new companies, capturing the imagination and dollars of some of the biggest names in venture capital.

“There was a buzz, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of bench of people that investors wanted it to become,” says one longtime VC based in the City of Angels. “It was a company in LA more than it was an LA company.” 

Perhaps the most successful SpaceX offshoot is Relativity Space, founded by Jordan Noone and Tim Ellis. Since Noone, a former SpaceX engineer, and Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer, founded their company, the business has been (forgive the expression) a rocket ship. Over the past four years, Relativity href="https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/01/relativity-a-new-star-in-the-space-race-raises-160-million-for-its-3-d-printed-rockets/"> has raised $185.7 million, received special dispensations from NASA to test its rockets at a facility in Alabama, will launch vehicles from Cape Canaveral and has signed up an early customer in Momentus, which provides satellite tug services in orbit.

Shogun raises $10M to help e-commerce brands build faster websites

By Anthony Ha

Amazon may have a market cap of more than $1 trillion, but Finbarr Taylor, CEO of Y Combinator-backed startup Shogun, said the e-commerce giant is “kind of dropping the ball.”

Specifically, he argued that the experience of shopping on Amazon — not what happens after you buy the product, but browsing the website itself — is pretty bad, full of sponsored results and fake products.

“What we’re seeing happen is that all this vast wave of direct-to-consumer brands is nibbling around edges of Amazon and beating them on buying experience,” Taylor said.

Shogun was designed to support those brands. Taylor and his co-founder Nick Raushenbush created the first product in 2015, and they treated it as a side project at first. But Taylor said that by May 2017, “It ate up all of our free time and it was obviously much bigger than we expected,” so they quit their jobs (Taylor was working as a software engineer at Y Combinator) and devoted themselves to it full-time.

The company now has 11,000 customers, including MVMT, K-Swiss and Leesa. And today, Shogun is announcing that it has raised a $10 million Series A, led by Initialized Capital, with participation from VMG Partners and YC. (The startup has now raised a total of $12 million.)

The company’s first product, Page Builder, offers a drag-and-drop interface to make it easier for e-commerce brands to build their storefronts on Shopify, BigCommerce, Salesforce and Magento.

Shogun Frontend

And there’s a new product, Shogun Frontend, which allows brands to create a web-customized storefront that’s entirely customized while still using one of the big commerce platforms as their back end.

Taylor pitched this as part of a broader trend toward “headless commerce,” where the e-commerce front end and back end are handled separately. He suggested that this is a “mutually beneficial” split, as Shopify and its competitors are going “super deep” on building the infrastructure needed to operate a store online, while Shogun focuses on the actual experience of the customer visiting that store.

Meanwhile, website builders like Squarespace and Weebly (owned by Square) have introduced e-commerce features, but Taylor suggested that they’re still “not really a professional choice” for most e-commerce businesses.

As one of the key features of Shogun Frontend, Taylor pointed to the fact that it creates progressive web apps that should be as fast and smooth as a native app.

Brett Gibson, general partner at Initialized Capital and a Shogun board member, made a similar point in a statement:

For DTC brands competing against goliaths like Amazon, Shogun Frontend now gives them features and capabilities once only reserved for enterprise companies. And when it comes to speed, Shogun Frontend’s sub-second load time is the critical difference between retaining or losing a customer.

Taylor added that the company will be “continuing to invest in Page Builder too,” but he suggested that Frontend is “more of an enterprise offering” that can help Shogun’s biggest customers “future proof themselves.”

The rise of the winged pink unicorn

By Walter Thompson
Claire Diaz-Ortiz Contributor
Claire Diaz-Ortiz is an angel investor and bestselling author of nine books that have been published in more than a dozen countries. An early employee at Twitter, she was called “The Woman Who Got the Pope on Twitter” by Wired and holds an MBA and other degrees from Stanford and Oxford.

Like most investors, I am a little too obsessed with unicorns.

But not just the Silicon Valley kind. As the mother of a five-year-old daughter, my interests also veer in a pink, sparkly direction. So it should not be all that surprising that I recently found myself in a dusty corner of the internet where die-hard unicorn fans go to spread their wings.

It was there, deep in the My Little Pony forums, that one question stopped me in my tracks: “is a male alicorn possible in the future?1

An alicorn, for those uninitiated to the mythological particulars, is the rare winged, female version of a traditional unicorn.

My Little Pony popularized the term, and the fan forum on which user “Green Precision” asked his question back in 2015 had some interesting answers to the particulars of this philosophical dilemma.

Shadow Stallion responded immediately, “I don’t think a male Alicorn will be possible in the future. Not because its [sic] not wanted or because its [sic] not genetically possible…but generally when male characters are introduced to a show where female characters are prominent, things get ugly.”

Malinter posited, “they probably do but given the female-to-male ratio of Equestria2 they are probably exceptionally rare. The real problem for a male alicorn is not that they exist but where is their place in the world? …Our male alicorn has some pretty big hoof prints to fill in while at the same time not make a trainwreck of established lore.”

Wind Chaser went straight from unconscious bias to conscious bias in their response: “aesthetically a male alicorn just wouldn’t look right, because their bodies are already naturally larger than females, thus the wings would cause an imbalance to the design.”

But it wasn’t all bad news.

“Until it’s proven otherwise, it’s safe to say that something like a male alicorn is possible,” responded Geek0zoid. Crysahis agreed. “Overall yes, I believe there could be a male alicorn it may just take a while to actually happen!”

It doesn’t take a PhD in philosophy from Stanford or the one lone female investing partner at Sequoia3 to posit that these same conversations were probably happening all over Sandhill Road in December of 2009, as male VCs discussed whether female unicorns could actually happen4.

As we move into 2020, though, we’re about to see a pink, winged stampede.

Just look at the recent trends. In 2019, more female-funded unicorns were born than ever before.5 And things are only looking up. (I’m looking at you, ClassPass!)

Public opinion agrees. Alongside TruePublic, where I am an advisor and angel investor, I ran a study asking if people believed we would see more female-led unicorns in the 2020s.6 At the time of this article, 68% of the 6,500 respondents said they believed we would see more, with 30% of women responding “many more” (as opposed to only 16% of men). Only 4% of women, but 9% of men, responded “no, not a chance.”7

Kaben Clauson, founder and CEO, says “to represent Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X, TruePublic needs a weighted sample of roughly one thousand Americans to represent that population of the USA.” This particular study already has 6,500 respondents, making it statistically significant.

In fact, female-founded and female co-founded companies are actually over-indexing for unicorn status despite a lack of investment dollars.

Shelby Porges, co-founder of The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, explains: “Recent tracking has shown that female-founded companies represent 4% of all unicorns. That’s astonishing considering that in the past couple of years, they have gotten only slightly more than 2% of all venture funding.” Porges, whose group has mobilized more than 80 venture funds to pledge to invest over a billion dollars into women-founded companies, continues, “It demonstrates why we say, ‘when you invest in women, you’re in good company.’ ”

Here are the three reasons I believe a herd of winged female unicorns (OK, alicorns) is coming down the pipeline in the 2020s:

1. Women invest in women at 3x the rate of men

New data reveals that women invest in women at nearly three times the rate that men do and with the (slow) rise in the number of female investing partners at VCV firms, we are poised to see more and more gender-balanced founding teams getting funding.8 Like one male GP at one of the world’s top VC funds said to me when discussing one of the few female partners at his firm, “she always brings us parenting companies.” It might be cringe-worthy if TechCrunch hadn’t declared 2020 “a big year for online childcare” and that same female partner weren’t about to make a big chunk of cash thanks to all the upcoming parenting alicorns she was smartly funding.

Sophia Bendz, a partner at Atomico who also leads the Atomico Angel Program, said, “I’m confident we’ll see more female unicorns in the next decade because there’s a growing wave of ambitious female founders building incredible products and services. There are also more women in VC now and I’ve seen first-hand the impact having female investment partners can have on increasing the amount of investment into female-led companies. The data shows that women invest in women at three times the rate as male investment partners.”

My study at TruePublic coincided with these findings. When asked if a female investor was more likely to invest in a female entrepreneur, 64% of people responded affirmatively (64% of these individuals were women and 63% were men).9

Jomayra Herrera agrees. An investor at Cowboy Ventures (which thanks to Aileen Lee coined the term “unicorn” in the first place), and a volunteer with AllRaise, a nonprofit promoting women in VC, she says: “As the venture industry continues to diversify, especially as it relates to gender and race/ethnicity, I am optimistic that we will see more female-led and people of color-led unicorns over the next decade. We know that diverse teams not only function better, but they are able to see areas of opportunities that more homogenous teams might miss. I think the next generation of investors are more likely to question conventional wisdom, forms of pattern recognition that may lead to bias, and other structural barriers that have historically left out promising entrepreneurs.”

Camila Farani is a well-known investor in Brazil. As founder of G2 Capital, former president of Gavea Angels and a personality on Brazil’s “Shark Tank,” she says “having diverse points of view at the table makes the decision clearer and more certain. People who think differently than you and have other visions of the market, sometimes can show you what you can’t see by yourself.”

She also reminds us not to forget the impact that angel investors can have. “The investments market is still made up mostly of men, but this landscape is changing gradually. It is interesting to see that angel investing is being the most common choice for women who want to make their first investments.”

This trend of investing more in women isn’t just limited to female investors. Susana Robles has spent two decades leading the charge to invest in women in Latin America and alongside Marta Cruz of NXTP Labs is co-founder of WeXchange, a platform that connects women entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean with mentors and investors.

As Robles says, “I think the world is finally waking up to the fact that there is serious research proving that startups with women co-founders win in all aspects: profitability, as well as greater social and environmental awareness. Investors should want to have this triple win.” She continues, “women tend to return money to investors faster than men, and at the same time, they obtain higher returns. Women are in charge of 64% of all global purchasing decisions on products and services, so having women on C-level positions increases the chance that a startup [will] be highly attractive to a massive market and become a unicorn.”

It also extends to the LPs in the funds. “I also think many investors in funds (mostly DFIs [development finance institutions] but not exclusively) have become more vocal in stating that they don’t want any more to invest in teams led by an all-white, all-male cast who choose startups with all-white, all-male founders.” Jennifer Neundorfer is the co-founder of Jane VC and an investor in Kinside, a parenting app that just raised a $3 million seed round. When describing her fund’s rationale for focusing on female founders, she drops the mic: “we’re going to invest in an under-looked asset class that is overperforming.” Boom.

2. Female founders are creating new billion-dollar markets

Another reason we’ll see more female-founded “alicorns” in the 2020s has everything to do with the new markets that female founders are creating. Hunter Walk of Homebrew was one of the initial seed investors in Winnie, an online marketplace for childcare that recently raised a $9 million Series A. At the time, he saw something that others investors didn’t. Winnie co-founder Sara Mauskopf explains, “Four years ago when we started Winnie, parenting and especially child care were not hot investment areas. This has been changing. It certainly helps that more investors are women and are in the thick of their child-bearing and rearing years.”

Part of what Walk says he recognized was the clear founder-market fit displayed by Mauskopf and her co-founder Annie Halsall. As Mauskopf says, “With Winnie, we saw an opportunity to solve the child-care crisis that other founders either did not recognize or did not care to solve. While everyone else was starting crypto and scooter companies, we were building the first-ever tech platform for $57 billion child care industry. Lack of access to quality child care disproportionately impacts women, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it took a female led team to capitalize on this opportunity.” Expanding on the concept of founder-market fit, Walk says, “I love to come away thinking, these are the absolute right founders to build this business.”10

Bendz, the Atomico partner who specializes in femtech and is also an avid angel investor, agrees. “Often I meet founders that you can tell are at the right place at the right time with the right mindset and the right team. It’s almost like all of the experiences they have had prior to launching a company have been preparing them to create that business at that time. These are the kind of founders who I know are in it for the long haul, and who are going to weather the ups and downs.” As a woman who uses the products and services she invests in, Bendz is also an example of investor-market fit, which I believe will open new markets in the decades to come.

Something else investors like Walk and Bendz believe in? Outsized opportunities. And the potential for outsized opportunities are especially ripe in untapped markets. The rise of femtech is yet another example of how the intuitive success of the concept of founder-market fit ultimately needed more female founders for certain markets to blossom. As Bendz explains, “Throughout a woman’s life there are many big events that have a big impact on our overall health — from childbirth to menopause. I know all women are tired of poor or non-existent solutions for women surrounding those life events, and that’s why we are seeing so many companies launching to better serve women’s needs. When you think about the fact that women have only had the right to vote and educate themselves for 100 years, it’s mind-blowing how long the world was operating with only 50% of the population in control. That’s reflected in the products and services we as a society have funded.”

Women’s consumer products are another area. Ornella Moraes is one of four female co-founders of Brazilian-led Sousmile, which recently raised a $6 million USD Series A led by Kaszek Ventures. “Our brand is a woman,” Moraes says of her dental beauty startup that retails throughout São Paulo. And so are the leaders of the company. At Sousmile, there are four female co-founders and two male co-founders. “More dentists in the world are women than men, so it’s been critical for our team to have more female founders,” she says. In this way, the rise of female founders and co-founders can completely change markets. “We believe this will fundamentally create a different type of product,” says Walk.

3. Emerging markets will take the lead

Finally, certain emerging markets pose a particular opportunity for female founders by over-indexing for both large IPOs and female founders. 2017 was the first year that more of the largest IPOs in the internet sector globally came from emerging markets. Nazar Yasin, founder of Rise Capital, which invests in emerging markets, says “This trend isn’t going away.” After all, most GDP growth comes from emerging markets, where most global internet users live. As he explains, “the future of market capitalization growth in the internet sector globally belongs to emerging markets.” And yet this type of innovation takes resilience. “If you’re a startup in one of these markets, it’s like trying to grow a plant in the desert.”11 In an environment that demands more daily resilience, there is a different appetite for risk and innovation. (I call this resilience innovation.)

Perhaps the easiest example of emerging market innovation fueled by resilience is fintech. Emerging markets and their often unstable economies boast a much higher number of frustratingly unbanked individuals. This brings about innovation. Hanna Schiuma, the Brazilian-born fintech founder of ElasBank, where I am an angel investor and advisor, explains how ubiquitous such fintech innovation is becoming.

“Soon all finance will be tailor-made and fintech will be common ground because all financial services will be technology-intensive.” She also argues that the nature of such an innovation allows the industry to become more innovative, and thus inclusive, which is exactly what is happening with her own women’s bank, launching in 2020. “That means great opportunities to better serve women’s financial needs to offer dedicated products, and to gather female talent to build those products from a diverse and innovative perspective.” Ultimately, “resilience is key for us to build that pool of talent and open the doors for gender balance and financial inclusion.”

Furthermore, data shows Africa and Latin America both beat global averages for percentages of startup female founders. Laura Stebbing is co-CEO of accelerateHER, a global community of leaders addressing the under-representation of women in tech through action. Raised in Southern Africa, Stebbing is passionate about Africa’s rise as a hub of female entrepreneurship.

“Africa has both the highest proportion of women founders at 26% [Latam comes in second]12 and a $42 billion funding gap. There’s clearly no lack of talent across Africa’s 54 countries, so for the investors, corporate executives, policy makers and established founders that aren’t moved by the moral arguments for gender parity, notice the enormous business opportunity. We will start to see a higher volume of resilient, scalable companies emerge as leaders build more diverse networks and ecosystems that support women to unlock their entrepreneurial potential.” Nathan Lustig, founder of Magma Partners, a VC firm in Latin America which invests in female founders above the regional average, explains, “investing in and empowering resilient women entrepreneurs is just good business, and is one of the biggest investment opportunities, especially in emerging markets.”

I believe Latin American can have an edge. I am a Silicon Valley-born investor now living in “Silicon Aires,” where I have been thrilled to see exciting numbers of female founders in Latin America. Susana Robles agrees, and says the reason is in part due to the nature of a committed ecosystem to support one another. “It’s the sheer need that forces you to collaborate.” An ecosystem like Silicon Valley doesn’t have the same need to do so. Of Latin America, Robles says, “In 10 years, we will have created a much more collaborative market than the developed ones.” And that collaboration is leading to great female founders. 2019, in fact, saw more funding going to female co-founders in Latin America than in Europe or the USA.13

This will lead to future alicorns. Ann Williams, COO of Creditas, a Brazilian fintech currently closing in on its own unicorn status, says “the conversion funnel for unicorns works just like any other selection process. We fill the top with a bunch of great women in supporting roles in emerging market startups, these women take their experiences and found rocking new companies. A percentage of these will convert to scaleups raising Series C and D rounds with valuations at $1 billion or higher. And voila! we get women-led unicorns.” She continues, “the odds are with us and I am sure the talent is too!”

Juliane Butty, startup head at Platzi and former regional manager of Seedstars, one of the leading accelerators and investors fostering female entrepreneurship in emerging markets, joins Williams. “We have definitely seen the rise of female founders and investors in emerging markets in the last decade. One supports the other. And we know that success breeds success.”

Perhaps My Little Pony fan Malinter said it best when he suggested how a male version of the alicorn could finally emerge in such a female-dominated space: “The simplest way they could probably add one in would be to make said alicorn the ruler of a neighboring nation.” In the same way, emerging markets may just hold the key for female unicorns.

No matter the region, Robles says “if we keep opening doors to women entrepreneurs who are as ambitious as men in growing their companies, we’ll begin to see many more unicorns with gender diversified teams.” Hanna Schiuma, the Elasbank founder who just might be building the next female-founded unicorn, agrees. “The alicorns are coming. And we’re ready to fly.”


2Equestria is of course where the My Little Ponies and their assorted unicorns, alicorns and friends all live.
3Go Jess Lee!
4Yes, Aileen Lee of Cowboy VC first invented the term in her 2013 TechCrunch piece, but we’re in a unicorn-fueled time machine, people.
8“Do Female Investors Support Female Entrepreneurs? An Empirical Analysis of Angel Investor Behavior,” Seth C. Oranburg, Duquesne University School of Law, Pittsburgh PA, USA and Mark Geiger, Duquesne University School of Business, Pittsburgh PA, USA
12Forthcoming research from TechCrunch/Crunchbase
13Forthcoming research from TechCrunch/Crunchbase

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

By Jake Bright

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

Ex-YC partner Daniel Gross rethinks the accelerator

By Lucas Matney

Amid skyrocketing operating expenses, remote work has become an obsession for Bay Area founders looking to have it both ways, accessing Silicon Valley’s networks of capital and opportunity without paying steep premiums for talent.

Daniel Gross has a deeper understanding than most of Silicon Valley’s opportunities. The Jerusalem native was one of Y Combinator’s early successes, joining with an AI startup that, at 23, he sold to Apple (we reported the deal was between $40-60 million). Gross served as a director of machine learning at Apple before returning to YC — this time as a partner.

At age 28, his role at YC behind him, Gross is now working to revamp the startup accelerator model for a remote future with his startup Pioneer. He’s received backing from Marc Andreessen and Stripe to build a program he hopes can give founders access to funding streams and talent networks that are nearly impossible to find outside Silicon Valley.

“In the way software is eating the world, remote is almost eating earth in the sense that it may very well be the way large companies are created, but also perhaps the way that venture funding takes place,” Gross told TechCrunch in an interview. “With Pioneer, the product experiment we’re running is an attempt to build a San Francisco or Mountain View — to build a city on the internet.”

GettyImages 604311102

Marc Andreessen, one of Pioneer’s early investors.

That lofty goal has required quite a bit of tinkering on Gross’s part over the past 18 months since he launched the startup. During that time, he’s shifted the program’s structure from a Reddit-like online contest to win cash grants to what he calls a “fully remote startup generator” that can help remote founders create companies that later apply to Y Combinator or raise money from Pioneer.

“People were really taking advantage of Pioneer as kind of an online accelerator almost organically,” Gross says. “We decided to kind of operationalize that inside and focus more on funding people that are working on things that will turn into companies and potentially offer them more funding.”

Pioneer has already backed more than 100 founders, who have created solutions like remote team product There, desktop app generator ToDesktop and software search engine Metacode.

Pioneer is hoping their efforts can provide opportunities to founders in underserved geographies and regions, but like other investors in Silicon Valley, the startup hasn’t been backing nearly as many female founders as their male counterparts. From funded entrepreneurs publicly announced on Pioneer’s blog, less than 15 percent are women.

“Pioneer is an engine for finding, funding and mentoring underrated people, many of whom I suspect are female. Our minds are constantly spinning on ways to raise awareness amongst female founders and we’re working with our community to improve female representation,” Gross wrote in an email response. “The world could stand to have many more founders like Mathilde Collin (of Front) and Laura Behrens Wu (of Shippo), and we are eager to find them.”

One of Pioneer’s livestream discussions during its remote program.

Pioneer’s existence is partially the result of an advent of remote work and communication tools, but another real enabler is the competitive market for early stage investing. Mega VC funds are competing over pre-seed deals for the buzziest startups and Y Combinator’s batch sizes are ballooning, leaving little room for accelerators with similar pitches. As the world of early stage startup investing gets more crowded, investors are having to get creative. For Gross and his investors, Pioneer also represents an opportunity to scout deal flow earlier in the pipeline.

Gross has a weighty portfolio of his own angel investments including GitHub, Figma, Uber, Gusto, Notion, Opendoor, Cruise Automation and Coinbase.

An earlier structure gave Pioneer the right to invest up to $100K in startups emerging from the program if they went onto raise, but just 30% of grant awardees went on to found companies, Gross tells me. In its 2.0 form, Pioneer wants participants to give up 1% of their company to join the one-month remote program. The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups, give them guidance via a network of experts, and toss some other substantial perks like $100K worth of cloud credits and a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco to inject a bit of face-to-face time into the process.

Greatly enjoyed the first Pioneer (@pioneerdotapp) Summit! pic.twitter.com/fIvdA24Kdf

— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) October 26, 2019

The biggest evolution is the more formalized investment structure for founders exiting the program. If Pioneer is excited about the progress of a particular startup, they may give it the option to raise directly from Pioneer upon completion, sticking it in one of three investment buckets and investing between $20K and $1 million.

Gross acknowledges that Pioneer will largely be making bets closer to the $20K mark as the accelerator scales its portfolio. Pioneer is relying an undisclosed amount of early funding from Gross, Andreessen and Stripe for both its investments and operating expenses. Gross says that the company has additional funding sources lined up to facilitate some of these larger investments, but that he’s reticent to raise too much too early. “This being my second rodeo, I’m well aware of the downsides of over-capitalizing and so I think we’re going to remain nimble and frugal,” Gross says.

Gross isn’t looking to replace Y Combinator, and realizes that for founders with plenty of options, Pioneer’s investments might not be the most enticing. Y Combinator invest $150K in startups for a 7% slice of equity, by comparison, a $20K investment from Pioneer will cost founders 5% of their company plus the 1% they gave up to join the accelerator in the first place. Nevertheless, Gross hopes that plenty of founders sitting on great ideas will want to take advantage of this deal.

“I think there are a lot of great companies that instead of being listed on the S&P 500 are stuck at the phase where they’re just a Python script.”

Snap accelerator names its latest cohort

By Jonathan Shieber

Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.

The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.

The list of new companies include:

  • Brightly — an Oakland, Calif.-based media company angling to be the conscious consumer’s answer to Refinery29.
  • Charli Cohen — a London-based fashion and lifestyle brand.
  • Hardworkersa Cambridge, Mass.-based professional digital community built for blue-collar workers.
  • Mogul Millennial — this Dallas-based company is a digital media platform for black entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
  • Nuggetverse — Los Angeles-based Nuggetverse is creating a children’s media business based on its marquee character, Tubby Nugget.
  • SketchAR — this Lithuanian company is developing an AI-based mobile app for teaching drawing using augmented reality.
  • Stipop — a Seoul-based sticker API developer with a library of over 100,000 stickers created by 5,000 artists.
  • TRASH — using this machine learning-based video editing toolkit, users can quickly create and edit high-quality, short-form video. The company is backed by none other than the National Science Foundation and based in Los Angeles.
  • Veam — another Seoul-based social networking company, Veam uses Airdrop as a way to create persistent chats with nearby users as a geolocated social network.
  • Wabisabi Design, Inc. — hailing from Mexico City, this startup makes mini games in augmented reality for brands and advertisers.

The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator

Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).

Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.

“Building from the momentum of our first two Yellow programs, this new class approaches mobile creativity through the diverse lenses of augmented reality, platforms, commerce and media, yet each company has a clear vision to bring their products to life,” said Mike Su, Director of Yellow. “This class shows us that there’s no shortage of innovation at the intersection of creativity and technology, and we’re excited to be part of each company’s journey.”

VCs to antitrust officials: We’d rather take our chances

By Connie Loizos

Last week at Stanford, antitrust officials from the U.S. Department of Justice organized a day-long conference that engaged numerous venture capitalists in conversations about big tech. The DOJ wanted to hear from VCs about whether they believe there’s still an opportunity for startups to flourish alongside the likes of Facebook and Google and whether they can anticipate what — if anything — might disrupt the inexorable growth of these giants.

Most of the invited panelists acknowledged there is a problem, but they also said fairly uniformly that they doubted if more regulation was the solution.

Some of the speakers dismissed outright the idea that today’s tech incumbents can’t be outmaneuvered. Sequoia’s Michael Moritz talked about various companies that ruled the world across different decades and later receded into the background, suggesting that we merely need to wait and see which startups will eventually displace today’s giants.

He added that if there’s a real threat lurking anywhere, it isn’t in an overly powerful Google, but rather American high schools that are, according to Moritz, a poor match for their Chinese counterparts. “We’re killing ourselves; we’re killing the future technologists… we’re slowly killing the potential for home-brewed invention.”

Renowned angel investor Ram Shriram similarly downplayed the DOJ’s concerns, saying specifically he didn’t think that “search” as a category could never be again disrupted or that it doesn’t benefit from network effects. He observed that Google itself disrupted numerous search companies when it emerged on the scene in 1998.

Somewhat cynically, we would note that those companies — Lycos, Yahoo, Excite — had a roughly four-year lead over Google at the time, and Google has been massively dominant for nearly all of those 22 years since (because of, yes, its network effects).

Expanding its women’s health benefits offerings for employers, Maven raises $45 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Over the past twelve months, Maven, the benefits provider focused on women’s health and family planning, has expanded its customer base to include over 100 companies and grown its telehealth services to include 1,700 providers across 20 specialties — for services like shipping breast milk, finding a doula and egg freezing, fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption.

The New York-based company which offers its healthcare services to individuals, health plans, and employers has now raised an additional $45 million to expand its offerings even further.

Its new money comes from a clutch of celebrity investors like Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, and Reese Witherspoon and institutional investors led by Icon Ventures and return backers Sequoia Capital, Oak HC/FT, Spring Mountain Capital, Female Founders Fund and Harmony Partners. Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, is also an investor in the company.

Maven is addressing critical gaps in care by offering the largest digital health network of women’s and family health providers,” said Tom Mawhinney, lead investor from Icon Ventures, who will join the Maven board of directors, in a statement. “With its virtual care and services, Maven is changing how global employers support working families by focusing on improving maternal outcomes, reducing medical costs, retaining more women in the workplace, and ultimately supporting every pathway to parenthood.”

In the six years since founder Katherine Ryder first launched Mayven, the company has raised more than $77 million for its service and become a mother of two boys.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she told TechCrunch after announcing the company’s $27 million Series B round, led by Sequoia. “You do it when your careers is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Some of Maven’s partners include Snap and Bumble to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The company connects users with OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services around family planning.

Google launches the first developer preview of Android 11

By Frederic Lardinois

With the days of desert-themed releases officially behind it, Google today announced the first developer preview of Android 11, which is now available as system images for Google’s own Pixel devices, starting with the Pixel 2.

As of now, there is no way to install the updates over the air. That’s usually something the company makes available at a later stage. These first releases aren’t meant for regular users anyway. Instead, they are a way for developers to test their applications and get a head start on making use of the latest features in the operating system.

With Android 11 we’re keeping our focus on helping users take advantage of the latest innovations, while continuing to keep privacy and security a top priority,” writes Google VP of Engineering Dave Burke. “We’ve added multiple new features to help users manage access to sensitive data and files, and we’ve hardened critical areas of the platform to keep the OS resilient and secure. For developers, Android 11 has a ton of new capabilities for your apps, like enhancements for foldables and 5G, call-screening APIs, new media and camera capabilities, machine learning, and more.”

Unlike some of Google’s previous early previews, this first version of Android 11 does actually bring quite a few new features to the table. As Burke noted, there are some obligatory 5G features like a new bandwidth estimate API, for example, as well as a new API that checks whether a connection is unmetered so apps can play higher resolution video, for example.

With Android 11, Google is also expanding its Project Mainline lineup of updatable modules from 10 to 22. With this, Google is able to update critical parts of the operating system without having to rely on the device manufacturers to release a full OS update. Users simply install these updates through the Google Play infrastructure.

Users will be happy to see that Android 11 will feature native support for waterfall screens that cover a device’s edges, using a new API that helps developers manage interactions near those edges.

Also new are some features that developers can use to handle conversational experiences, including a dedicated conversation section in the notification shade, as well as a new chat bubbles API and the ability to insert images into replies you want to send from the notifications pane.

Unsurprisingly, Google is adding a number of new privacy and security features to Android 11, too. These include one-time permissions for sensitive types of data, as well as updates to how the OS handles data on external storage, which it first previewed last year.

As for security, Google is expanding its support for biometrics and adding different levels of granularity (strong, weak and device credential), in addition to the usual hardening of the platform you would expect from a new release.

There are plenty of other smaller updates as well, including some that are specifically meant to make running machine learning applications easier, but Google specifically highlights the fact that Android 11 will also bring a couple of new features to the OS that will help IT manage corporate devices with enhanced work profiles.

This first developer preview of Android 11 is launching about a month earlier than previous releases, so Google is giving itself a bit more time to get the OS ready for a wider launch. Currently, the release schedule calls for monthly developer preview releases until April, followed by three betas and a final release in Q3 2020.

Founders Fund confirms $3 billion in new capital across two funds

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders Fund, the investment firm led by its controversial co-founder Peter Thiel and partners Keith Rabois and Brian Singerman, has closed on $3 billion in new capital across two investment funds, TechCrunch confirmed.

News of the firm’s latest fundraising close was first reported in Axios.

The firm’s $1.2 billion Founders Fund VII closed in December and follows on the heels of a $1.3 billion Fund VI, which closed in 2016. The firm’s first growth fund, which raked in $1.5 billion, closed on Monday as well, according to a spokesperson for the investment firm. An additional $300 million in commitments is coming from the firm’s partnership to round out the $3 billion figure.

Fundraising for the new investment vehicles was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last October. And it follows the reunion earlier in 2019 of Rabois and Thiel — two of the most notorious members of the “PayPal mafia” that’s produced a number of billionaire entrepreneurs and investors.

The speed with which Founders Fund has been able to raise new capital is matched by the firm’s alacrity in deploying new dollars, according to industry watchers. Rabois in particular has made a splash at Founders Fund since joining the firm — investing large sums in competitive rounds, investors said.

But the firm’s success in fundraising is likely due to the returns it has been able to reap for its limited partners. For its 2011-vintage fund four, Founders Fund has more than quadrupled every dollar that the fund committed, to $4.60, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (thanks to investments in Airbnb and Stripe Inc.). That figure compares favorably to the industry average of $2.11. Meanwhile, the firm’s third fund saw its returns increase to $3.80, 75 cents more than the industry average.

Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister described how the firm’s investment practices differ from other venture capital investors in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch last year:

As for how decisions get made, Banister explained that the voting structure is dependent on the size of the check. “So you’d meet with one or two or three or four partners, depending on your [investing] stage,” she told attendees. Because she’s looking at very early-stage startups, for example, she doesn’t have to meet with many people to make a decision. As “dollar amounts gets larger,” she continued, “you’re looking at full GP oversight,” including the involvement of senior members like Brian Singerman and Keith Rabois, and “that can a little more difficult.”

At Axios, Dan Primack reported that the growth fund would write checks of $100 million at least. The firm’s investment decisions would be structured with any two investment team members agreeing to back deals under $1.5 million. Any deal above $1.5 million requires approval from one partner and a general partner; deals above $5 million require one partner and two general partners; and deals above $10 million require approvals from two partners and the unanimous approval of Singerman, Thiel and Rabois. Any deal requiring the approval of the general partners means that the startup that is pitching has to at least talk on the phone or meet in person with the general partners.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the firm’s Fund VII was $1.2 billion and its Growth Fund was $1.5 billion. 

Talking cybersecurity, SaaS and early-stage valuations with ForgePoint Capital

By Alex Wilhelm

Earlier today TechCrunch covered the launch of a new, $450 million cybersecurity-focused fund, the second from venture group ForgePoint Capital.

The new vehicle, inventively named Fund II, will mostly focus on early-stage companies in the cybersecurity space. The fund’s timing is somewhat unsurprising. As we noted in our earlier coverage, the recent IPOs of Cloudflare (more here) and CrowdStrike (more here) have given cybsersecurity a halo, showing founders and investors alike that outsize returns are possible in the space. Such successes can’t hurt VCs looking for fresh capital.

To get a stronger grip on how ForgePoint sees the market, TechCrunch corresponded with the group, asking about fund mechanics (check sizes, investing pace), the cybersecurity sector itself (business models, valuations) and recent liquidity events (CrowdStrike in particular). ForgePoint’s Alberto Yépez, a co-founder and managing director at the group, answered our questions.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Let’s have some fun:

TechCrunch: The new fund is $150 million larger than its predecessor. Why raise 50% more for the new vehicle? What is the target number of checks per year? Will it be faster than the preceding fund?

ForgePoint Capital: We were one of the first investors to focus on cybersecurity when we raised our first fund. Since then, the cybersecurity market has grown by more than 50%, driven by the constantly evolving challenges facing businesses, governments and individuals. We’ve also doubled our investment team. Our team has a singular focus on the market, driving unparalleled domain expertise and insights into emerging industry trends.

We will continue to invest in six to ten new cybersecurity companies per year, and find great opportunities with leading entrepreneurs.

Putting capital to work in “early-stage and select growth companies” is delightfully flexible. What check size range is the fund targeting, and what is the target deal size for growth-oriented deals?

We target up to $25 million for early-stage ventures throughout the life of an investment, and up to $50 million for growth-oriented companies achieving considerable revenue growth.

How much did Crowdstrike’s successful IPO boost cybersecurity-focused startup valuations and fundraising last year?

A rising tide lifts all boats. In cybersecurity, as elsewhere, the market rewards rapid growth and valuations reflect [that]. We target companies with great teams building innovative solutions that are poised for high growth. While the Crowdstrike IPO certainly boosted attention on the market, over 90% of successful cybersecurity exits are through M&A. Strategic buyers and financial sponsors pay up for companies that can scale.

Fintech VC sets records in Q4 despite early-stage slowdown

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Fintech is what you hear about constantly, but probably aren’t as read up on as you’d like to be. Neither am I.

Luckily we have a new report concerning fintech investing to unpack and explore. Thanks to a dataset from startup and venture data provider CB Insights, we have a fresh, deep look into the world of startup fintech investment. 

Here’s what we want to know:

  • Did fintech venture activity rise in 2019?
  • How are the various venture stages of fintech investing performing
  • Are early-stage fintech startups able to attract capital at similar velocity to their much-lauded, late-stage counterparts?

Let’s find out!

2019: A (near) record

ForgePoint raises a massive new $450M fund for early-stage cybersecurity startups

By Zack Whittaker

ForgePoint Capital has formally announced its new $450 million fund, which it says is the largest fund dedicated to early stage cybersecurity and privacy startups.

The fund, the firm’s second — which it aptly named Fund II — will invest in both early stage and a number of other growth-focused companies.

The aim is to try to cash in early on an increasing number of startups in the cybersecurity space that could go on to become the next Crowdstrike or Cloudflare, both of which saw massive exits last year when they both went public on valuations of several billion apiece. By investing now, it’ll help the firm better position itself to snap up the best talent ahead of an anticipated cybersecurity worker shortage — an estimated 1.8 million workers by 2022.

So far, the fund has already invested in several early-stage startups, notably Cysiv, Huntress Labs and Secure Code Warrior.

“We believe that global prosperity and national security depend upon a commitment to protect the digital world,” said Alberto Yépez, co-founder and managing director at ForgePoint, who will lead the fund.

Much of the decision making will be made by the firm’s Cybersecurity Advisory Council, made up of 60 members (11% are women), made up of industry leaders and investing experts.

ForgePoint previously invested in Qualys, AlienVault and Appthority to name a few of its high-profile exits.

Facebook backs Indian education startup Unacademy

By Manish Singh

Unacademy, one of India’s fastest growing education startups, has just received the backing of a major technology giant: Facebook.

The social juggernaut has participated in the four-year-old Indian startup’s Series E financing round, sources familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

General Atlantic is leading the round, the size of which is about $100 million, the sources said. It wasn’t immediately clear to us exactly how big of a check Facebook has cut, but a source said it was under $20 million. The round values the startup, which had raised $90 million prior to the ongoing round, at over $350 million, the source said.

Unacademy is aimed at students who are preparing for competitive exams to get into a college and those who are pursuing graduation-level courses. It allows students to watch live classes from educators and later engage in sessions to review topics in more detail.

A year ago, the startup launched a subscription service that offers students access to all live classes. Gaurav Munjal, co-founder and chief executive of Unacademy, tweeted earlier this month that the subscription service had become a $30 million ARR business.

This is the second time Facebook is investing in an Indian startup. Last year, it participated in social commerce Meesho’s $125 million financing round led by Prosus Ventures.

Facebook and Unacademy did not respond to a request for comment.

Ajit Mohan, VP and managing director of Facebook India, told TechCrunch in an interview last year that the company was open to engaging with startups that are building solutions for the Indian market.

“Wherever we believe there is opportunity beyond the work we do today, we are open to exploring further investment deals,” he said.

Indian newspaper Mint first reported in December that Unacademy was in talks with General Atlantic and GGV Capital to raise as much as $100 million. TechCrunch understands that GGV Capital, which earlier this month invested in edtech startup Vedantu, is not participating in Unacademy’s funding round.

Vedantu and Unacademy compete with Byju’s, an Indian startup that counts General Atlantic as an investor and is valued at $8 billion. Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in Byju’s, but has sold at least some of its stake, according to a regulatory filing analyzed by business outlet Entrackr.

As India’s startup ecosystem begins to mature, it has started to attract corporate giants. Google, Amazon and Twitter also have made investments in Indian startups. While Twitter has backed social platform ShareChat, Google has invested in hyperlocal concierge app Dunzo.

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