The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.
Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.
Behind the acquisition is a story threaded with serendipity, return, and collaboration.
Both Paga and Apposit were founded by repatriate entrepreneurs. Oviosu did his MBA at Stanford University and worked at Cisco Systems before returning to Nigeria.
Apposit CEO Adam Abate moved back to Ethiopia 17 years ago for an assignment in the country’s Ministry of Finance, after studying at Brown University and working in fintech in New York.
“I put together a team…to build…public financial management systems for the country. And during the process…brought in my best friend Eric Chijioke…to be a technical engineer,” said Abate.
The two teamed up with Simon Solomon in 2007 to co-found Apposit, with a focus on building large-scale enterprise software for Africa.
Apposit partners (L-R) Adam Abate, Simon Solomon, Eric Chijioke, Gideon Abate
A year later, Oviosu met Chijioke when he crashed at his house while visiting Ethiopia for a wedding. It just so happened Chijioke’s brother was his roommate at Stanford.
That meeting began an extended conversation between the two on digital-finance innovation in Africa and eventually led to a Paga partnership with Apposit in 2010.
Apposit dedicated an engineering team to build Paga’s payment platform, Eric Chijioke became Paga’s CTO (while maintaining his Apposit role) and Apposit backed Paga.
“We aligned ourselves as African entrepreneurs…which then developed into a close relationship where we became…investors in Paga and strategically aligned,” said Abate.
Fast forward a decade, and the two companies have come pretty far. Apposit has grown its business into a team of 63 engineers and technicians and has racked up a list of client partnerships. The company helped digitize the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange and has contracted on IT and software solutions with banks non-profits and brick and mortar companies.
For a decade, Apposit has also supported Paga’s payment product development.
Over that period, Oviosu and team went to work building Paga’s platform and driving digital payment adoption in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million.
That’s been no small task considering Nigeria’s percentage of unbanked was pegged as high as at 70% in 2011 and still lingers around 60% in 2017 by, according to The Global Findex database.
Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.
Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and allows for third-party integration of its app.
Since inception, the startup has processed 104 million transactions worth $6.6 billion, according to Oviosu.
With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers. The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support expansion.
Paga plans its Mexico launch in 2020, according to Oviosu.
Adam Abate is now CEO of Paga Ethiopia, where Paga plans to go live as soon as it gains a local banking license. The East African nation of 100 million, with the continent’s seventh largest economy, is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub, though it still lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria and Kenya — in startup formation, ISP options and VC.
Ethiopia has also been slow to adopt digital finance, with less than 1% of the population using mobile-money, compared to 73% for Kenya, Africa’s mobile-payments leader.
Paga aims to shift the financial needle in the country. “The goal is straight-forward. We want Ethiopians to use the Paga wallet as their payment account. So it’s about digitizing cash transactions and driving financial services,” said Oviosu.
Paga CEO Tayo Oviosu
With the Apposit acquisition and country expansion, he also looks to grow Paga’s model in Africa and beyond, as an emerging markets fintech solution.
“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu said.
As it grows abroad, Paga faces greater competition in Nigeria. For the last decade, South Africa and Kenya — with the success of Safaricom’s M-Pesa product — have been Africa’s standouts in digital payments.
But over the last several years, Nigeria has become a magnet for VC and fintech startups. This trend reached a high-point in 2019 when Chinese investors put $220 million into Opera owned OPay and Transsion backed PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and broader Africa.
That’s a hefty war chest compared to Paga’s total VC haul of $34 million, according to Crunchbase.
Oviosu names product market fit and benefits from the company’s expansion as factors that will keep it ahead of these well-funded new entrants.
“That’s where the world-class technology comes in,” he said.
“We also take a perspective that we cannot build every use-case,” he said — contrasting Paga’s model to Opera in Africa, which has launched multiple startup verticals around its OPay product, from ride-hailing to food-delivery.
Oviosu compares Paga’s approach to PayPal, which allows third-party developers to shape businesses around PayPal as the payment solution.
With its Apposit acquisition and plans for continued expansion, PayPal may become more than a model for Paga.
It’s hard to put a positive spin on terrible situation, but that didn’t stop Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon earlier today. Asked during a session at the World Economic Forum in Davos about WeWork’s yanked IPO in September, Solomon suggested it was proof that the listing process works, despite that the CFO of Goldman — one of the offering’s underwriters — disclosed last fall that the pulled deal cost the bank a whopping $80 million.
Reuters was on the scene, reporting that Solomon acknowledged the process was “not as pretty as everybody would like it to be” yet also eschewing responsibility, telling those gathered that the “banks were not valuing [WeWork]. Banks give you a model. You say to the company, ‘Well, if you can prove to us that the model actually does what it does, then it’s possible that the company is worth this in the public markets,'” Solomon said.
Investment banks had reportedly courted WeWork’s business by discussing a variety of figures that led cofounder Adam Neumann to overestimate how it might be received by public market shareholders. According to the New York Times, in 2018, JPMorgan was telling Neumann that it could find buyers to value the company at more than $60 billion; while Goldman Sachs said $90 billion was a possibility, and Morgan Stanley — which has been assigned as lead underwriter of many of the buzziest tech offerings over the last decade — reportedly posited that even more than $100 billion was possible.
Ultimately, the IPO was canceled several weeks after Neumann was asked to resign and WeWork’s biggest investor, SoftBank — which itself nearly tripled the company’s private market valuation across funding rounds — stepped in to ostensibly rescue the company (and its now $18.5 billion investment in it.
Solomon isn’t the only one defending some of the frustrating logic of IPO pricing in recent years. This editor sat down in November with Morgan Stanley’s head tech banker Michael Grimes, who has been called “Wall Street’s Silicon Valley whisperer” for landing a seemingly endless string of coveted deals for the bank.
Because Morgan Stanley pulled out of the process of underwriting WeWork’s IPO (reportedly after WeWork rejected its pitch to be the company’s lead underwriter), we talked with Grimes instead about Uber, whose offering last year Morgan Stanley did lead. We asked how Uber could have been told reportedly by investment bankers that its valuation might be as high as $120 billion in an IPO when, as we now know, public market shareholders deemed it worth far less. (Its current market cap is roughly half that amount, at $64 billion.)
Grimes said matter-of-factly that price estimates can routinely be all over the place, explaining that “if you look at how companies are valued, at any given point of time right now, public companies with growth prospects and margins that are not yet at their mature margin, I think you’ll find on average price targets by either analysts who work at banks or buy-side investors that can be 100%, 200% and 300% different from low to high.”
He called that a “typical spread.”
The reason, he said, had to do with each bank’s or analyst’s guess at “penetration.”
“Let’s say, what, 100 million people or so [worldwide] have have been monthly active users of Uber, somewhere in that range,” said Grimes during our sit-down “What percentage of the population is that? Less than 1% or something. Is that 1% going to be 2%, 3%, 6%, 10%, 20%? Half a percent, because people stop using it and turn instead to some flying [taxi]?
“So if you take all those variable, possible outcomes, you get huge variability in outcome. So it’s easy to say that everything should trade the same every day, but [look at what happened with Google]. You have some people saying maybe that is an outcome that can happen here for companies, or maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll [hit their] saturation [point] or face new competitors.”
Grimes then turned the tables on reporters and others in the industry who wonder how banks could get the numbers so wrong, with Uber but also with a lot of other companies. “It’s really easy to be a pundit and say, ‘It should be higher’ or ‘It should be lower,’” Grimes said. “But investors are making decisions about that every day.”
Besides, he added, “We think our job is to be realistically optimistic” about where things will land. “If tech stops changing everything and software stops eating the world, there probably would be less of an optimistic bias.”
In recent years, the retail category has become one of the biggest and best-funded robotics categories — particularly when coupled with connected verticals like warehouse fulfillment and logistics. Berkshire Grey has flown mostly under the under the radar, but is kicking 2020 off with some pretty sizable funding news.
The Massachusetts-based company just announced a lofty $263 million Series B. The round is led by Softbank, which has taken a particular interest in robotics of late, along with participation from Khosla Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Canaan.
In spite of having a name that sounds like a financial holdings company, Berkshire Grey has displayed some pretty sophisticated pick and place robots. It’s positioned particularly well in the warehouse space, making it a competitor with the likes of Amazon Robotics and Fetch. Like the others, Berkshire’s pitch is largely around questions of labor shortages in such high intensity jobs, while claiming to increase e-commerce operations by 70% to 80%.
“Our customers from leading enterprises in retail, ecommerce, and logistics are selecting Berkshire Grey as a competitive differentiator,” founder and CEO Tom Wagner said in a release tied to the news. “With our intelligent robotic automation, our clients see faster and more efficient supply chain operations that enable them to address the wants of today’s savvy consumer.”
The funding follows recent rounds by companies like Bossa Nova, Osaro Realtime and a $23 million raise by Soft Robotics earlier this week. Berkshire says the money will go toward increased headcount, acquisitions and a push toward international growth.
One of the biggest opportunities in the new space economy lies in taking the connectivity made possibly by ever-growing communications satellite constellations, and making that useful for things and companies here on Earth. Startup Skylo, which emerged from stealth today with a $103 million Series B funding announcement, is one of the players making that possible in an affordable way.
The funding brings Skylo’s total raised to $116 million, following a $14 million Series A. This new round was led by Softbank Group (which at this point carries a complicated set of connotations) and includes existing investors DCM and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. Skylo’s business is based on connecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including sensors, industrial equipment, logistics hardware and more, to satellite networks using the cellular-based Narrowband IoT protocol. Its network is already deployed on current geostationary satellites, too, meaning its customers can get up and running without waiting for any new satellites or constellations with dedicated technology to launch.
Already, Skylo has completed tests of its technology with commercial partners in real-world usage, including partners in private enterprise and government, across industries including fisheries, maritime logistics, automotive and more. The company’s main claim to advantage over other existing solutions is that it can offer connectivity for as little as $1 per seat, along with hardware that sells for under $100, which it says adds up to a cost savings of as much as 95 percent vs. other satellite IoT connectivity available on the market.
Its hardware, the Skylo Hub, is a satellite terminal that connects to its network on board geostationary satellites, acting as a “hot spot” to make that available to standard IoT sensors and devices. It’s roughly 8″ by 8″, can be powered internally via battery or plugged in, and is easy for customers to install on their own without any special expertise.
The company was founded in 2017, by CEO Parth Trivedi, CTO Dr. Andrew Nuttall and Chief Hub Architect Dr. Andrew Kalman. Trivedi is an MIT Aerospace and Astronautical engineering graduate; Nuttal has a Ph.D in Aeronautics from Stanford, and Kalman is a Stanford professor who previously founded CubeSat component kit startup Pumpkin, Inc.
French startup Qonto has raised a $115 million Series C funding round led by Tencent and DST Global. Today’s news comes a few days after another French fintech startup, Lydia, raised some money from Tencent.
Existing investors Valar and Alven are also participating in today’s funding round. TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and Adyen CFO Ingo Uytdehaage are also joining the round. Qonto says it represents the largest funding round for a French fintech company.
Qonto is a challenger bank, or a neobank, but for B2B use cases. Instead of attracting millions of customers like N26 or Monzo, Qonto is serving small and medium companies as well as freelancers in Europe.
According to the startup, business banking in Europe is broken. The company thinks it can provide a much better user experience with an online and mobile-first product.
The company has managed to attract 65,000 companies over the past two years and a half. The product is currently live in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. In 2019 alone, Qonto managed €10 billion in transaction volume.
With today’s funding round, the company plans to double down on its existing markets, develop new features that make the platform work better in each country based on local needs and hire more people. The team should grow from 200 to 300 employees within a year.
Qonto obtained a payment institution license in June 2018 and has developed its own core banking infrastructure. Around 50% of the company’s user base is currently using Qonto’s own core banking system. Others are still relying on a third-party partner.
Moving from one back end to another requires some input from customers, which explains why there are still some customers using the legacy infrastructure. Over the coming months, Qonto plans to launch new payment features that should convince more users to switch to Qonto’s back end.
Even more important, Qonto plans to obtain a credit institution license, which could open up a ton of possibilities when it comes to features and revenue streams. The company says that it should have its new license by the end of the year.
For instance, you could imagine being able to get a credit card, apply for an overdraft and get a small loan with Qonto.
Compared to traditional banks, Qonto lets you open a bank account more easily. After signing up, Qonto offers a modern interface with your activity. You can export your transactions in no time, manage your expenses and get real-time notifications. Qonto also integrates with popular accounting tools.
When it comes to payment methods, Qonto gives you a French IBAN as well as debit cards. You can order physical or virtual cards whenever you want, customize limits and freeze a card. Qonto also supports direct debit and checks. Like many software-as-a-service products, you can also manage multiple user accounts and customize permission levels.
Mike Rothenberg, the once high-flying VC bent on bringing the party to Silicon Valley, must now pay a whopping $31.4 million to settle a California federal court ruling in favor of Security and Exchange Commission allegations.
TechCrunch deemed Rothenberg a “virtual Gatsby” back in 2016, when we first broke the news about the downfall of his venture capital firm, Rothenberg Ventures. It seemed he took it as a compliment, changing his Instagram handle to @virtualgatsby. Indeed, the name seemed appropriate for a man who seemingly lived a party-boy lifestyle and spent lavishly to woo startup founders — including going on Napa Valley wine tours, holding an annual “founder field day” where he rented the whole San Francisco Giants’ baseball stadium and spending unsparingly to executive produce a video for Coldplay.
But the party life came to a halt when top leadership jumped ship and the SEC started looking into the books. The SEC formally charged Rothenberg in August of 2018 for misappropriating millions of dollars of his investors’ capital and funneling that money into his own bank account. Rothenberg settled with the SEC at the time and, as part of the settlement, was barred from the brokerage and investment advisory business for five years.
Rothenberg was later caught up in several lawsuits, including one from Transcend VR for fraud and breach of contract, which ended in a settlement. Another suit between Rothenberg and his former CFO, David Haase, ended with Rothenberg being ordered to pay $166,000 in damages.
But there was more to come from the SEC, following a forensic audit in partnership with the firm Deloitte showing the misuse or misappropriation of $18.8 million in investor funding. Under that examination, Deloitte showed Rothenberg had used the money either personally, to float his flashy lifestyle, or for other extravagances, such as building a race car team and a virtual reality studio. Rothenberg has now been ordered to pay back the $18.8 million he took from investors, another $9 million in civil penalties, plus $3.7 million in interest.
Neither the SEC nor Rothenberg have responded for comment. It’s also important to note none of the charges so far have been criminal, but were handled in civil court, as the SEC does not handle criminal cases.
Through all of it, Rothenberg never admitted any guilt for his actions and it is important to note that, because of this he will be able to practice again after the bar is lifted in five years. He’s also made some decent early investments in startups like Robinhood, and many investor sources TechCrunch spoke to over the years seemed quite loyal to him as an investor, despite the charges, employee mass exodus and fund implosion that followed.
And it seems this saga is not over yet. Rothenberg told MarketWatch in a recent interview that he thought the ruling was, “historically excessive and vindictively punitive,” that he planned to appeal it and would be suing Silicon Valley Bank, which Rothenberg used to funnel several investments, over the matter.
Rothenberg Ventures already filed suit against Silicon Valley Bank in August of 2018, the same day the SEC filed formal charges against Rothenberg himself. In that suit, Rothenberg alleged negligence, fraud and deceit on the part of the bank and sought a trial before jury. Silicon Valley Bank said it would defend against the case at the time.
We’ve reached out to Silicon Valley Bank and are waiting to hear back. The real question is, if Rothenberg were to come back to investing in Silicon Valley, would anyone still trust him?
As the global cybersecurity market becomes increasingly crowded, the Start Up Nation remains a bulwark of innovation and opportunity generation for investors and global cyber companies alike. It achieved this chiefly in 2019 by adapting to the industry’s competitive developments and pushing forward its most accomplished entrepreneurs in larger numbers to meet them.
New data illustrates how Israeli entrepreneurs have seized on the country’s reputation for building radically cutting-edge technologies as the number of new Israeli cybersecurity startups addressing nascent sectors eclipses its more traditional counterparts. Moreover, related findings highlight how cybersecurity companies looking to expand beyond their traditional offerings are entering Israel’s cybersecurity ecosystem in larger numbers through highly strategic acquisitions.
Broadly, new findings also reveal the Israeli cybersecurity market’s overall coming of age, seasoned entrepreneurial dominance and greater appetite for longer-term visions and strategies — the latter of which received record-breaking investor backing in 2019.
The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.
The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.
That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.
Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.
“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.
Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.
Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.
Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.
African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.
That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.
The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.
Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.
Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.
This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.
For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation
“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.
This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.
More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.
Space as an investment target is trending upwards in the VC community, but specialist firm Space Angels has been focused on the sector longer than most. The network of angel investors just published its most recent quarterly overview of activity in the space startup industry, revealing that investors put nearly $6 billion in capital into space companies across 2019.
I spoke to Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson about what he’s seen in terms of changes in the industry since Space Angels began publishing this quarterly update in 2017, and about what’s in store for 2020 and beyond as commercial space matures and comes into its own. Informed by data released publicly, SEC filings and investor databases — as well as anonymized and aggregated info from Space Angels’ own due diligence process and portfolio company management — Anderson is among the best-positioned people on either the investment or the operator side to weigh in on the current and future state of the space startup industry.
“2019 was a record year — record number of investments, record number of companies, a record on all these fronts,” Anderson said. “2019 in its own right was a huge year, but then you look at everything that happened over the last decade. We always refer to this last decade as ‘the entrepreneurial space age’ […] and you see everything that’s happened over the last 10 years, you see it all culminating in a record year like this one.”
Goldman Sachs is investing in African tech companies. The venerable American investment bank and financial services firm has backed startups from Kenya to Nigeria and taken a significant stake in e-commerce venture Jumia, which listed on the NYSE in 2019.
Though Goldman declined to comment on its Africa VC activities for this article, the company has spoken to TechCrunch in the past about specific investments.
Goldman Sachs is one of the most enviable investment banking shops on Wall Street, generating $36 billion in net revenues in 2019, or roughly $1 million per employee. It’s the firm that always seems to come out on top, making money during the financial crisis while its competitors were hemorrhaging. For generations, MBAs from the world’s top business schools have clamored to work there, helping make it a professional incubator of sorts that has spun off alums into leadership positions in politics, VC and industry.
All that cache is why Goldman’s name popping up related to African tech got people’s attention, including mine, several years ago.
Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.
The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business, such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.
With this latest money, Bolt has raised more than €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013, and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.
Bolt further said that its service now has more than 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.
The timing of the last equity round, and the company’s ambitious growth plans, could well mean it will be raising more equity funding again soon. Bolt’s existing backers include the Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi, Creandum, G Squared and Daimler (which owns a ride-hailing competitor, Free Now — formerly called MyTaxi).
“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said EIB’s vice president, Alexander Stubb, in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”
The EIB is the nonprofit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.
Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost investment in promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs as part of this plan.
Opting for a “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.
“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder of Bolt (whose brother Markus is the CEO), in a statement. “Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”
(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: It tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)
While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round of funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past, as has MariaDB.
One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been their safety record, a huge area of focus given the potential scale and ubiquity of a transportation or mobility service. Indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing; while it does, it’s business as usual.)
So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”
Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.
“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”
Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.
San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.
In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.
Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.
Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.
Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.
Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global, Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.
A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.
There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.
Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017
Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.
“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”
Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.
Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.
Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.
There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.
Grab and Singtel, one of the largest telecoms in Singapore, announced today that they are applying for a digital full bank license together. If approved, the license will allow them to offer simple credit and investment products, before progressing to a full-functioning bank if they meet the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) criteria.
Grab will hold a 60% stake in the consortium, with Singtel holding the other 40%. A joint statement said the companies are “committed to contributing to the financial services sector with a differentiated offering that addresses the unmet and underserved needs of consumer and enterprise segments in Singapore,” including SMEs that need access to credit. Securing working capital is a major pain point across Southeast Asia, with several startup and financial institutions working on new tools to gauge creditworthiness and manage loans.
Grab launched in 2012 as a ride-sharing company, but now bills itself as “Southeast Asia’s leading super app,” with app that provides a wide array of service, including transportation, logistics, food delivery, ticket and hotel booking and financial services, through one portal.
It entered financial services in 2016 with the introduction of GrabPay Wallet, a digital wallet, before launching Grab Financial Group in 2019. Grab Financial Group’s services include online payments, lending and insurance products that it says reaches 100 million users across Southeast Asia.
In a press statement, Grab Financial Group senior managing director Reuben Lai said the consortium’s plan is to “build a truly customer-centric digital bank that will deliver a variety of banking and financial services that are accessible, transparent and affordable.”
MAS announced in June that it will issue up to two digital full bank licenses and three digital wholesale bank licenses, as part of a bid to to liberalize Singapore’s banking sector.
On the heels of Bill.com’s debut, Chicago-based social media software company Sprout Social priced its IPO last night at $17 per share, in the middle of its proposed $16 to $18 per-share range. Selling 8.8 million shares, Sprout raised just under $150 million in its debut.
Underwriters have the option to purchase an additional 1.3 million shares if they so choose.
The IPO is a good result for the company’s investors (Lightbank, New Enterprise Associates, Goldman Sachs, and Future Fund), but also for Chicago, a growing startup scene that doesn’t often get its due in the public mind.
At $17 per share, not including the possible underwriter option, Sprout Social is worth about $814 million. That’s just a hair over its final private valuation set during its $40.5 million Series D in December of 2018. That particular investment valued Sprout at $800.5 million, according to Crunchbase data.
Sprout’s debut is interesting for a few reasons. First, the company raised just a little over $110 million while private, and will generate over $100 million in trailing GAAP revenue this year. In effect, Sprout Social used less than $110 million to build up over $100 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR) — the firm reached the $100 million ARR mark in between Q2 and Q3 of 2019. That’s a remarkably efficient result for the unicorn era.
And the company is interesting as it gives us a look at how investors value slower-growth SaaS companies. As we’ve written, Sprout Social grew by a little over 30% in the first three quarters of 2019. That’s a healthy rate, but not as fast as, say, Bill.com . (Bill.com’s strong market response puts its own growth rate in context.)
Thinking very loosely, Sprout Social closed Q3 2019 with ARR of about $105 million. Worth $814 million now, we can surmise that Sprout priced at an ARR multiple of about 7.75x. Thats a useful benchmark for private companies that sell software: if you want a higher multiple when you go public, you’ll have to grow a little faster.
All the same, the IPO is a win for Chicago, and a win for their number of investors. We’ll update this piece later with how the stock performs, once it begins to trade.
The global industry potential of artificial intelligence is well-documented, yet the vision of this AI future is uncertain.
AI and automation trends are generating significant debate among economists and governments, particularly around employment impact and uncertain social outcomes. The mainstream attention is warranted. According to PwC, AI “could contribute up to $15.7 trillion to the global economy in 2030, more than the current output of China and India combined.”
AI is at a crossroads, and its long-term outlook is still hotly debated. Despite social media giants, automotive companies and numerous other industries investing hundreds of billions of dollars in AI, many automation technologies are not yet directly generating revenue and instead are forecasted to become profitable in the coming decades. This creates additional uncertainty of AI’s true market potential. The realistic potential value of AI is unknown, yet, as the technology advances, the ultimate impact could be of great consequence to virtually every economy.
There are many reasons to view AI’s future from an optimistic lens, however: chatbots provide significant evidence for AI’s positive impact on both business growth and employment markets. Today, chatbots are increasingly capable of mimicking human interactions and conversations to assist business-to-business, business-to-consumer, business-to-government, advertising audiences and other diverse groups. The evolution of the cognitive computer science behind conversational chatbots is perhaps one of the best examples of AI technologies driving revenue. Further, chatbot technology shows some of the greatest promise for augmenting, rather than replacing human workers.
Chatbots are delivering real revenue today for some of the world’s leading financial services (Bank of America), retail (Levi’s), and technology companies (Zendesk) . We’re seeing more consumers taking the next step in a transaction or even making a purchase decision based off conversations with chatbots. Beyond driving sales, chatbots have numerous applications to a wide range of organizations. Nonprofits, NGOs, and even political campaigns find value in deploying chatbots to help handle the influx of inquiries from stakeholders and relevant audiences.
Rather than these chatbots replacing human workers, organizations are finding chatbots to be a helpful and value-creating opportunity that frees employees to focus on more strategic tasks. Apple’s Siri, Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana aren’t replacing executive assistants today, but these technologies are all capable of supporting the executive assistant function in the workplace.
Gartner predicts AI augmentation, defined as a “human-centered partnership model of people and AI working together to enhance cognitive performance,” could generate $2.9 trillion of business value by 2021. Many industries see potential for chatbots to augment functions like sales, customer support and IT, enabling workers to create value in more strategic ways. Bain & Company finds chatbots to be among the most notable examples of artificial intelligence and automation in practice: “Companies use AI applications to understand industry trends, manage their workforce, address problems, power chatbots and personalize content to enable self-service.”
Clearly, the implications of scaled, human-like engagement are stunning in their capacity to carry out tasks. A chatbot’s ability to simultaneously hold tens of thousands of conversations — pulling from many millions of data points — is comparable to what a human customer service rep could accomplish in more than 1,000 years of nonstop work. Scaling customer service via AI allows service professionals to focus on big picture and more complex issues, and it provides rich data on customer interactions. We anticipate seeing more companies look to build better customer service experiences through chatbots, as Google and Salesforce announced in April.
From our research and work with leading global companies, it’s clear that enterprises are finding that chatbots bring about tremendous value while supporting both people employment and long-term business growth opportunities today. Ultimately, chatbots are on track to showcase some of the most optimistic examples of AI augmentation. Consider three examples:
He lead the company through its B round and then stepped back, but last year, he founded Wayv, a new cannabis startup to address an even more significant challenge for the industry: supply chain logistics. So far, it’s raised $5 million and is currently seeking its Series A. Fundraising is hard for any entrepreneur, but McCarty’s experience sets him apart from most cannabis industry founders.
The company is now the first complete payment solution in the cannabis industry, allowing money to travel throughout the ecosystem in the fastest, safest way while remaining compliant with all of California’s regulations.
We spoke at length about this ability and along the way, chatted about the cannabis startup landscape.
McCarty has been in the industry for about five years, founding Eaze in 2014 and later leaving after raising a $13 million B round. At the time, startups generally didn’t seek venture funding and McCarty helped the company become one of the first to do so. Now founder and CEO of a new cannabis startup, he’s at it again.
E-commerce now accounts for 14% of all retail sales, and its growth has led to a rise in the fortunes of startups that build tools to enable businesses to sell online. In the latest development, a company called VTEX — which originally got its start in Latin America helping companies like Walmart expand their business to new markets with an end-to-end e-commerce service covering things like order and inventory management, front-end customer experience and customer service — has raised $140 million in funding, money it will be using to continue taking its business deeper into more international markets.
The investment is being led by SoftBank, specifically via its Latin American fund, with participation also from Gávea Investimentos and Constellation Asset Management. Previous investors include Riverwood and Naspers; Riverwood continues to be a backer, the company said.
Mariano Gomide, the CEO who co-founded VTEX with Geraldo Thomaz, said the valuation is not being disclosed, but he confirmed that the founders and founding team continue to hold more than 50% of the company. In addition to Walmart, VTEX customers include Levi’s, Sony, L’Oréal and Motorola . Annually, it processes some $2.4 billion in gross merchandise value across some 2,500 stores, growing 43% per year in the last five years.
VTEX is in that category of tech businesses that has been around for some time — it was founded in 1999 — but has largely been able to operate and grow off its own balance sheet. Before now, it had raised less than $13 million, according to PitchBook data.
This is one of the big rounds to come out of the relatively new SoftBank Innovation Fund, an effort dedicated to investing in tech companies focused on Latin America. The fund was announced earlier this year at $2 billion and has since expanded to $5 billion. Other Latin American companies that SoftBank has backed include online delivery business Rappi, lending platform Creditas and property tech startup QuintoAndar.
The common theme among many SoftBank investments is a focus on e-commerce in its many forms (whether that’s transactions for loans or to get a pizza delivered), and VTEX is positioned as a platform player that enables a lot of that to happen in the wider marketplace, providing not just the tools to build a front end, but to manage the inventory, ordering and customer relations at the back end.
“VTEX has three attributes that we believe will fuel the company’s success: a strong team culture, a best-in-class product and entrepreneurs with profitability mindset,” said Paulo Passoni, managing investment partner at SoftBank’s Latin America fund, in a statement. “Brands and retailers want reliability and the ability to test their own innovations. VTEX offers both, filling a gap in the market. With VTEX, companies get access to a proven, cloud-native platform with the flexibility to test add-ons in the same data layer.”
Although VTEX has been expanding into markets like the U.S. (where it acquired UniteU earlier this year), the company still makes some 80% of its revenues annually in Latin America, Gomide said in an interview.
There, it has been a key partner to retailers and brands interested in expanding into the region, providing integrations to localise storefronts, a platform to help brands manage customer and marketplace relations, and analytics, competing against the likes of SAP, Oracle, Adobe and Salesforce (but not, he said in answer to my question, Commercetools, which builds Shopify -style API tools for mid and large-sized enterprises and itself raised $145 million last month).
E-commerce, as we’ve pointed out, is a business of economies of scale. Case in point: While VTEX processes some $2.5 billion in transactions annually, it makes a relatively small return on that — $69 million, to be exact. This, plus the benefit of analytics on a wider set of big data (another economy of scale play), are two of the big reasons VTEX is now doubling down on growth in newer markets like Europe and North America. The company now has 122 integrations with localised payment methods.
“At the end of the day, e-commerce software is a combination of knowledge. If you don’t have access to thousands of global cases you can’t imbue the software with knowledge,” Gomide said. “Companies that have been focused on one specific region are now realising that trade is a global thing. China has proven that, so a lot of companies are now coming to us because their existing providers of e-commerce tools can’t ‘do international.’ ” There are very few companies that can serve that global approach and that is why we are betting on being a global commerce platform, not just one focused on Latin America.”
Founders First Capital Partners, an accelerator and investment firm which provides revenue-based financing to businesses led by “underrepresented entrepreneurs” operating in underserved markets, has received a $100 million commitment to expand its operations.
The San Diego-based investor raised the debt financing from Community Investment Management, a large debt-focused impact investment fund.
The revenue-based financing model is a new one that several startups are beginning to explore as a way to take non-dilutive capital for early stage businesses that might not qualify for traditional bank loans.
Companies like the new media startup, The Prepared, which offers tips on disaster preparedness, used revenue financing as a way to get its own business off the ground. And other companies are turning to the financing method too, according to investors from Lighter Capital.
At Founders First Capital Partners, the new financing will expand its lending operations to companies that are already generating between $1 million and $5 million in annual revenue.
The new program is set to launch in January 2020, expanding the firm’s footprint as a financial services firm for minority and other underrepresented founders, the company said in a statement.
The firm focuses on businesses led by people of color, women, and military veterans and concentrates on entrepreneurs whose business operate in low and middle-income communities outside of the traditional funding networks of Silicon Valley and New York, the company said.
It also operates an accelerator program for entrepreneurs that meet the same criteria.
“Founders First is very pleased to have secured such significant funding that allows us to expand our efforts to businesses that are led by underrepresented founders or those that serve underrepresented communities,” said Kim Folsom, co-founder and chief executive of Founders First, in a statement.
Revenue-based financing can in some cases be a better option for service-based, social impact companies, according to Jacob Haar, a managing partner with CIM, who previously worked at Minlam Investment Managemet, a hedge fund working in the micro-finance space.
Both microfinance and revenue-based financing come with risks — particularly around the rates that these lenders can charge for their financing.
But it is a unique opportunity to open up founders to additional types of financing models.
“CIM is excited to partner with Founders First to expand revenue-based financing to support underserved and underrepresented small business founders, including people of color, women, LGBTQ, and military veterans as well as small businesses located in low to moderate income areas,” Haar said in a statement. “We have found revenue-based financing to be a compelling alternative to venture capital and fixed payment loans as a forward-looking and structurally flexible investment to support business growth. We believe that Founders First’s unique advisory and revenue-based investment platform enables underrepresented small businesses to overcome systematic bias and achieve their potential.”
A commons tactic in both amateur and professional sports – and even in competitions as mundane as a casual board game night – is trash talk. But the negative effect of trash talk may have less to do with the skill of the repartee involved, and more with just the fact that it’s happening at all. A new study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that even robots spitting out pretty lame pre-programmed insults can have a negative impact on human players.
CMU’s study involved programming one of SoftBank’s Pepper humanoid robots to deliver scorchers like “I have to say you are a terrible player” to a group of 40 participants, who were playing the robot in a game called “Guards and Treasures,” which is a version of a strategy game often used for studying rationality. During the course of the experiment, participants played 35 times against the robot – some getting bolstering, positive comments form the robot, while others were laden with negative criticism.
Both groups of participants improved at the game over time – but the ones getting derided by the bots didn’t score as highly as the group that was praised.
It’s pretty well-established that people excel when they receive encouragement from other – but that’s generally meant other humans. This study provides early evidence that people could get similar benefits from robotic companions – even ones that don’t look particularly human-like. The researchers still want to do more investigation into whether Pepper’s humanoid appearance affected the outcome, vs. say a featureless box or an industrial robot acting as the automaton opponent and doling out the same kind of feedback.
The results of this and related research could be hugely applicable to areas like at-home care, something companies including Toyota are pursuing to address the needs of an aging population. It could also come into play in automated training applications, both at work and in other settings like professional sports.
WeWork is reportedly being investigated by the New York State Attorney General. According to Reuters, the NYAG’s questions include if WeWork founder and former CEO Adam Neumann engaged in self-dealing.
A WeWork spokesperson said in an email that “we have received an inquiry from the office of the New York State Attorney General and are cooperating in the matter.” TechCrunch also contacted the New York State Attorney General’s office for comment. WeWork is headquartered in New York City.
This comes less than a week after Bloomberg reported WeWork is the subject of a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into potential rule violations related to its cancelled IPO.
WeWork’s parent company, The We Company, announced on Sept. 30 that it was withdrawing its S-1 filing for an initial public offering, shortly after Neumann stepped down as CEO. In addition to questions about the company’s financial state, red flags for investors included that Neumann had borrowed against his WeWork shares and leased properties he owned back to the company.
An entity Neumann controlled also sold the company the right to use the word “We” for $5.9 million, though he later asked the company to unwind the agreement and returned the money after public criticism.
After receiving a lifeline from investor SoftBank worth up to $8 billion, WeWork is now engaging in major cost-cutting measures, including layoffs at Meetup, which it acquired for $200 million in 2017.