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Toast’s Aman Narang and BVP’s Kent Bennett on how customer obsession is everything

By Jordan Crook

Toast has raised more than $900 billion and is reportedly valued at over $5 billion. But back in 2011, no one knew this startup would see such meteoric success. It had a few things going for it, of course — founder Aman Narang hailed from Endeca, where he was a software engineer and product lead with a reputation for being able to ship a lot of software quickly.

But the ambitions behind Toast were big, and complicated, and enough to give pause to any investor. Kent Bennett was one such VC, and while he had conviction in the founding team, he wasn’t convinced that they could tackle such a big problem.

Toast is a restaurant POS system that acts as a sort of operating system for an establishment, managing everything from online orders, deliveries and marketing to payroll and team management as well as the actual point of sale. Being able to do all that requires building a number of complex products, such as payments.

Early on, Bennett had told Narang not to build a restaurant POS. To him, it was too complicated and nuanced, which is why the systems from the ’90s were still deeply entrenched 20 years later. However, he did offer space in the Bessemer office for the Toast team to work on their product.

“I caught up with Aman and he told me that they did this interesting thing after hearing that a lot of their customers were frustrated by payments platforms, which are separate from the POS,” said Bennett. “Aman said they built their own payments platform. Once again, I was like, ‘You did what? You’re not allowed to build payments.’ But he told me that they built it and it improves their products, and that, by the way, they make a margin on it.”

Bennett said that when they added up the margins from the payments and the POS, it was impactful.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks,” said Bennett. “This is a really good business.”

From there, it became his obsession. And though it took a few more quarters to close the deal, they eventually got there. Bessemer led the company’s Series B financing in 2016.

We spoke to Bennett and Narang recently on an episode of Extra Crunch Live to explore the story of how they came together for the deal, what makes the difference for both founders and investors when fundraising, and the biggest lessons they’ve learned so far. The episode also featured the Extra Crunch Live Pitch-off, where audience members pitched their products to Bennett and Narang and received live feedback.

Extra Crunch Live is open to everyone each Wednesday at 3pm ET/noon PT, but only Extra Crunch members are able to stream these sessions afterwards and watch previous shows on-demand in our episode library.

Despite the complexity of the Toast system, or maybe because of it, Narang says the fundamentals are the most important part of communicating the business, especially when fundraising.

Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Founders must show investors that sustainability is more than lip service

By Walter Thompson
Todd Klein Contributor
Todd Klein is a partner at Revolution Growth, a VC fund that invests in growth-stage companies. During his 20-year career, Todd has been involved in financing and building over 150 venture and growth-stage companies in the media, consumer, technology, education and healthcare sectors.

Ending years of debates over environmental sustainability, the United States officially declared a climate crisis earlier this year, deeming climate considerations an “essential element” of foreign policy and national security. After recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, President Joseph R. Biden announced an aggressive new goal for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and pushed world leaders to collectively “step up” their fight against climate change.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly looking to do business with brands that align with their growing environmental values, rather than ignoring the climate consequences of their consumption. Even without regulation as a stick, consumer demand is now serving as a carrot to increase sustainability’s impact on public companies’ agendas.

Startups have already followed suit. Investors today view sustainability as an important pillar of any business model and are looking for entrepreneurs who “get it” from the beginning to build and scale next-generation companies. Startups interested in thriving cannot treat sustainability as an afterthought and should be prepared to enter the public eye with a plan for sustainable growth.

Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media.

So what exactly do founders need to put in place to demonstrate that they’re on the right track when it comes to sustainability? Here are five attributes that investors are looking for.

1. A truly customer-centric feedback loop

It’s fairly easy for any company to claim that it understands customers’ wants and needs, but it’s challenging to have the tech stack in place to prove a company actually listens to customer feedback and meets those expectations.

Investors now expect startups to have both platforms and solutions — social listening channels, relationship management tools, surveying programs and review forums — that allow them to hear and act on the needs of their customers. Without the proper communications tools and actual people using them, your eco-friendly efforts will likely appear to be merely lip service.

Take the example of TemperPack, which manufactures recyclable insulated packaging solutions for shipments of cold, perishable foods and pharmaceuticals. The direct relationship between a packager like TemperPack and the end consumer is often invisible. But as we were looking into investing in the company, some of its life sciences customers told us about comments they had received from end users — people who were receiving medicine twice per day. Another supplier’s packaging required them to visit a recycler for disposal, a real-world pain point that was causing them to consider switching to a different medication.

Revolution Growth decided to add TemperPack as a portfolio company after directly seeing its customer feedback loop in action: End-user requests informed product development, proving both a market need and customer demand on the sustainability front. This firsthand example demonstrates how an investor, a packaging maker, a life sciences company and an end user are now interconnected in one relationship while underscoring how end-user feedback can connect the dots for sustainable product development.

2. Public commitment to sustainability goals

Over the past several years, we have seen millennials and Gen Z consumers demand transparency in sustainability efforts. As these generations grow in purchasing power, investors will look for startups that make their commitments to eco-friendly goals as transparent as possible to satisfy shrewd consumer needs.

For many VCs, making public commitments to sustainability goals is a sign that your startup is working toward becoming a next-generation company. Investors will look for goals that are thoughtful, with a clear understanding of where your company will have agency and influence, and that are S.M.A.R.T (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). They will also expect regular reports on progress.

Although a company’s management establishes these goals, its board should play a behind-the-scenes role in driving the goals forward, keeping leadership on track and setting the playing field so executives understand that they’re being evaluated on criteria transcending positive EBIDTA.

Taking these steps will ensure goals are responsible and ambitious while also holding the company accountable to consumers and stakeholders to see the initiatives through to completion.

3. Purpose-driven culture

Even the best-laid sustainability goals will go unmet without a strong culture designed to guarantee leadership and employee alignment. Sustainability must be ingrained in a startup’s culture — from the top down and bottom up — and there’s a lot at stake if it’s not.

Another Revolution Growth portfolio company, the global fintech-revolutionizing startup Tala, demonstrates how young companies can imbue their cultures with purpose-driven values. While Tala’s mission is to provide credit to the unbanked, the company believes that the consumer’s best interests should always come first. During 2019’s holiday season, Tala contrasted with businesses fueling consumption by instead urging customers in Kenya to not take out loans, protecting them from predatory unregulated lenders amid a lack of functioning credit bureaus and loan-stacking databases. This forward-looking approach ultimately safeguarded Tala’s customers and its vibrant digital lending industry.

Beyond determining what they stand for, many of our portfolio companies face challenges securing talent. People have choices about where they want to work, and those with intrinsic motivations — such as concerns about the environment — will feel uncomfortable if their employers do not share their values. Regulatory risks and customer attrition pale in comparison to the human cost of losing star performers who seek other work cultures that better align with their values.

A clear values system should embed sustainability into the decision-making process, make obvious imperatives and empower employees to follow through.

4. Accountability

Companies aren’t only judged by their own initiatives — they’re also judged by their partners. As startups build new relationships or expand to work with new suppliers, investors will be keen to know that these outside parties align with their stated sustainability philosophies.

Before becoming publicly involved with another company, a startup should gauge each new supplier’s reputation, including insights into their employment practices. Take leading Mediterranean fast-casual restaurant Cava or healthy-inspired salad-centric chain Sweetgreen, both Revolution Growth portfolio companies; neither will source proteins from farms with inhumane policies. If companies are not aware of these factors, their customers will eventually let them know, and likely hold them accountable for the oversight.

Think of it this way: If a diagram of your partnerships and supplier relationships was printed on the front page of The New York Times, would you be comfortable with what it shows the world? Today, companies of all sizes are being held to a higher standard by consumers, employees, potential partners and the media. It’s no longer possible to fly under the radar with relationships that are antithetical to a company’s sustainability goals. So take a hard look at your supplier and partner ecosystem, and make clear that you are bringing your green vision to life through every extension of your business.

5. Financial realism

Financial realism acknowledges that a company can want to do good, but unless they have the economics, they won’t survive to make an impact. For most startups, beginning with financial realism as a mindset and incrementalism as an approach will be key to success, enabling all businesses to contribute to a more resilient planet. For startups that prioritize environmentally friendly business practices alongside a product or service, this strategy can prevent goodness from becoming the enemy of greatness. Founders in this position can commit to a stage-by-stage sustainability plan, rather than expecting an overnight transformation. Investors understand the delicate balance between striving to meet green goals and keeping the lights on.

Entrepreneurs looking to build a business that not only adopts eco-friendly practices but also has sustainability at its heart may have to consider starting in a niche industry or market that is less price-sensitive and ready for a solution today. Once that solution is firmly established, the business can build upon what they’ve created, rather than going big with something that doesn’t scale — and failing fast. Without an initial set of customers that value and love what you’re doing, you won’t get to the bigger play.

As the public and private sectors continue to address the climate crisis, sustainability will increasingly become a mandate rather than an option, and funding will increasingly flow to startups that have addressed potential environmental concerns. Unfortunately, pressure for companies to meet sustainability demands has led to “greenwashing” — the deceptive use of green marketing to persuade consumers that a company’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly.

Greenwashing has forced investors to look beyond mere words for action. As we move toward a more sustainable future, startups pursuing VC funding will need to prove to investors that sustainability is a priority across their entire organizations, aligning their outreach, public commitments and cultures with accountability and concrete examples of sustainable activities. Even if those examples are just steps toward larger goals, they will show investors and customers that startups are ready today to contribute to a greener and better tomorrow.

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Network security startup ExtraHop skips and jumps to $900M exit

By Ron Miller

Last year, Seattle-based network security startup ExtraHop was riding high, quickly approaching $100 million in ARR and even making noises about a possible IPO in 2021. But there will be no IPO, at least for now, as the company announced this morning it has been acquired by a pair of private equity firms for $900 million.

The firms, Bain Capital Private Equity and Crosspoint Capital Partners, are buying a security solution that provides controls across a hybrid environment, something that could be useful as more companies find themselves in a position where they have some assets on-site and some in the cloud.

The company is part of the narrower Network Detection and Response (NDR) market. According to Jesse Rothstein, ExtraHop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, it’s a technology that is suited to today’s threat landscape, “I will say that ExtraHop’s north star has always really remained the same, and that has been around extracting intelligence from all of the network traffic in the wire data. This is where I think the network detection and response space is particularly well-suited to protecting against advanced threats,” he told TechCrunch.

The company uses analytics and machine learning to figure out if there are threats and where they are coming from, regardless of how customers are deploying infrastructure. Rothstein said he envisions a world where environments have become more distributed with less defined perimeters and more porous networks.

“So the ability to have this high quality detection and response capability utilizing next generation machine learning technology and behavioral analytics is so very important,” he said.

Max de Groen, managing partner at Bain, says his company was attracted to the NDR space, and saw ExtraHop as a key player. “As we looked at the NDR market, ExtraHop, which […] has spent 14 years building the product, really stood out as the best individual technology in the space,” de Groen told us.

Security remains a frothy market with lots of growth potential. We continue to see a mix of startups and established platform players jockeying for position, and private equity firms often try to establish a package of services. Last week, Symphony Technology Group bought FireEye’s product group for $1.2 billion, just a couple of months after snagging McAfee’s enterprise business for $4 billion as it tries to cobble together a comprehensive enterprise security solution.

Version One launches $70M Fund IV and $30M Opportunities Fund II

By Darrell Etherington

Early stage investor Version One, which consists of partners Boris Wertz and Angela Tran, has raised its fourth fund, as well as a second opportunity fund specifically dedicated to making follow-on investments. Fund IV pools $70 million from LPs to invest, and Opportunities Fund II is $30 million, both up from the $45 million Fund III and roughly $20 million original Opportunity Fund.

Version One is unveiling this new pool of capital after a very successful year for the firm, which is based in Vancouver and San Francisco. 2021 saw its first true blockbuster exit, with Coinbase’s IPO. The investor also saw big valuation boosts on paper for a number of its portfolio companies, including Ada (which raises at a $1.2 billion valuation in May); Dapper Labs (valued at $7.5 billion after riding the NFT wave); and Jobber (no valuation disclosed but raised a $60 million round in January).

I spoke to both Wertz and Tran about their run of good fortune, how they think the fund has achieved the wins it recorded thus far, and what Version One has planned for this Fund IV and its investment strategy going forward.

“We have this pretty broad focus of mission-driven founders, and not necessarily just investing in SaaS, or just investing in marketplaces, or crypto,” Wertz said regarding their focus. “We obviously love staying early — pre-seed and seed — we’re really the investors that love investing in people, not necessarily in existing traction and numbers. We love being contrarian, both in terms of the verticals we go in to, and and the entrepreneurs we back; we’re happy to be backing first-time entrepreneurs that nobody else has ever backed.”

In speaking to different startups that Version One has backed over the years, I’ve always been struck by how connected the founders seem to the firm and both Wertz and Tran — even much later in the startups’ maturation. Tran said that one of their advantages is following the journey of their entrepreneurs, across both good times and bad.

“We get to learn,” she said. “It’s so cool to watch these companies scale […] we get to see how these companies grow, because we stick with them. Even the smallest things we’re just constantly thinking about— we’re constantly thinking about Laura [Behrens Wu] at Shippo, we’re constantly thinking about Mike [Murchison] and David [Hariri] at Ada, even though it’s getting harder to really help them move the needle on their business.”

Wertz also discussed the knack Version One seems to have for getting into a hot investment area early, anticipating hype cycles when many other firms are still reticent.

“We we went into crypto early in 2016, when most people didn’t really believe in crypto,” he said. “We started investing pretty aggressively in in climate last year, when nobody was really invested in climate tech. Having a conviction in in a few areas, as well as the type of entrepreneurs that nobody else really has conviction is what really makes these returns possible.”

Since climate tech is a relatively new focus for Version One, I asked Wertz about why they’re betting on it now, and why this is not just another green bubble like the one we saw around the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

“First of all, we deeply care about it,” he said. Secondly, we think there is obviously a new urgency needed for technology to jump into to what is probably one of the biggest problems of humankind. Thirdly, is that the clean tech boom has put a lot of infrastructure into the ground. It really drove down the cost of the infrastructure, and the hardware, of electric cars, of batteries in general, of solar and renewable energies in general. And so now it feels like there’s more opportunity to actually build a more sophisticated application layer on top of it.”

Tran added that Version One also made its existing climate bet at what she sees as a crucial inflection point — effectively at the height of the pandemic, when most were focused on healthcare crises instead of other imminent existential threats.

I also asked her about the new Opportunity Fund, and how that fits in with the early stage focus and their overall functional approach.

“It doesn’t require much change in the way we operate, because we’re not doing any net new investments,” Tran said. “So we recognize we’re not growth investors, or Series A/Series B investors that need to have a different lens in the way that they evaluate companies. For us, we just say we want to double down on these companies. We have such close relationships with them, we know what the opportunities are. It’s almost like we have information arbitrage.”

That works well for all involved, including LPs, because Tran said that it’s appealing to them to be able to invest more in companies doing well without having to build a new direct relationship with target companies, or doing something like creating an SPV designated for the purpose, which is costly and time-consuming.

Looking forward to what’s going to change with this fund and their investment approach, Wertz points to a broadened international focus made possible by the increasingly distributed nature of the tech industry following the pandemic.

“I think that the thing that probably will change the most is just much more international investing in this one, and I think it’s just direct result of the pandemic and Zoom investing, that suddenly the pipeline has opened up,” he said.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves over the past year and a half,” Tran added. “I mean, we’ve always been distributed, […] and being remote was one of our advantages. So we certainly benefited and we didn’t have to adjust our working style too much, right. But now everyone’s working like this, […] so it’s going to be fun to see what advantage we come up with next.”

AI pioneer Raquel Urtasun launches self-driving technology startup with backing from Khosla, Uber and Aurora

By Kirsten Korosec

One of the lingering mysteries from Uber’s sale of its Uber ATG self-driving unit to Aurora has been solved.

Raquel Urtasun, the AI pioneer who was the chief scientist at Uber ATG, has launched a new startup called Waabi that is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks. Urtasun, who is the sole founder and CEO, already has a long list of high-profile backers, including separate investments from Uber and Aurora. Waabi has raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC, Aurora Innovation as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.

Urtasun described Waabi, which currently employs 40 people and operates in Toronto and California, as the culmination of her life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society. The name of the company —  Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese —  hints at her approach and ambitions.

Autonomous vehicle startups that exist today use a combination of artificial intelligence algorithms and sensors to handle the tasks of driving that humans do such as detecting and understanding objects and making decisions based on that information to safely navigate a lonely road or a crowded highway. Beyond those basics are a variety of approaches, including within AI.

Most self-driving vehicle developers use a traditional form of AI. However, the traditional approach limits the power of AI, Urtasun said, adding that developers must manually tune the software stack, a complex and time-consuming task. The upshot, Urtasun says: Autonomous vehicle development has slowed and the limited commercial deployments that do exist operate in small and simple operational domains because scaling is so costly and technically challenging.

“Working in this field for so many years and, in particular, the industry for the past four years, it became more and more clear along the way that there is a need for a new approach that is different from the traditional approach that most companies are taking today,” said Urtasun, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.

Some developers do use deep neural nets, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allows a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. However, developers typically wall off the deep nets to handle a specific problem and use a machine learning and rules-based algorithms to tie into the broader system.

Deep nets have their own set of problems. A long-standing argument is that can’t be used with any reliability in autonomous vehicles in part because of the “black box” effect, in which the how and the why the AI solved a particular task is not clear. That is a problem for any self-driving startup that wants to be able verify and validate its system. It is also difficult to incorporate any prior knowledge about the task that the developer is trying to solve, like say driving. Finally, deep nets require an immense amount of data to learn.

Urtasun says she solved these lingering problems around deep nets by combining them with probabilistic inference and complex optimization, which she describes as a family of algorithms. When combined, the developer can trace back the decision process of the AI system and incorporate prior knowledge so they don’t have to teach the AI system everything from scratch. The final piece is a closed loop simulator that will allow the Waabi team to test at scale common driving scenarios and safety-critical edge cases.

Waabi will still have a physical fleet of vehicles to test on public roads. However, the simulator will allow the company to rely less on this form of testing. “We can even prepare for new geographies before we even drive there,” Urtasun said. “That’s a huge benefit in terms of the scaling curve.”

Urtasun’s vision and intent isn’t to take this approach and disrupt the ecosystem of OEMs, hardware and compute suppliers, but to be a player within it. That might explain the backing of Aurora, a startup that is developing its own self-driving stack that it hopes to first deploy in logistics such as long-haul trucking.

“This was the moment to really do something different,” Urtasun said. “The field is in need of a diverse set of approaches to solve this and it became very clear that this was the way to go.”

Chinese lidar maker Hesai lands $300M led by Hillhouse, Xiaomi, Meituan

By Rita Liao

The rush to back lidar companies continues as more automakers and robotaxi startups include the remote sensing method in their vehicles.

Latest to the investment boom is Hesai, a Shanghai-based lidar maker founded in 2014 with an office in Palo Alto. The company just completed a $300 million Series D funding round led by GL Ventures, the venture capital arm of storied private equity firm Hillhouse Capital, smartphone maker Xiaomi, on-demand services giant Meituan and CPE, the private equity platform of Citic.

Hesai said the new proceeds will be spent on mass-producing its hybrid solid-state lidar for its OEM customers, the construction of its smart manufacturing center, and research and development on automotive-grade lidar chips. The company said it has accumulated “several hundred million dollars” in funding to date.

Other participants in the round included Huatai Securities, Lightspeed China Partners and Lightspeed Venture Capital, as well as Qiming Venture Partners. Bosch, Baidu, and ON Semiconductor are also among its shareholders.

Another Chinese lidar startup Innovusion, a major supplier to electric vehicle startup Nio, raised a $64 million round led by Temasek in May. Livox is another emerging lidar maker that was an offshoot of DJI.

Lidar isn’t limited to powering robotaxis and passenger EVs, and that’s why Hesai got Xiaomi and Meituan onboard. Xiaomi makes hundreds of different connected devices through its manufacturing suppliers that could easily benefit from industrial automation, to which sensing technology is critical. But the phone maker also unveiled plans this year to make electric cars.

Meituan, delivering food to hundreds of millions of consumers in China, could similarly benefit from replacing human riders with lidar-enabled unmanned vans and drones.

Hesai, with a staff of over 500 employees, says its clients span 70 cities across 23 countries. The company touts Nuro, Bosch, Lyft, Navya, and Chinese robotaxi operators Baidu, WeRide and AutoX among its customers. Last year, it kickstarted a partnership with Scale AI, a data labeling company, to launch an open-source data set for training autonomous driving algorithms, with data collected using Hesai’s lidar in California. 

Last July, Hesai and lidar technology pioneer Velodyne entered a long-term licensing agreement as the two dismissed legal proceedings in the U.S., Germany and China.

6 career options for ex-founders seeking their next adventure

By Ram Iyer
David Teten Contributor
David Teten is founder of Versatile VC and writes periodically at teten.com and @dteten.

Hey, founders between gigs: What now?

If you exited your last company for airplane money and are now independently wealthy, congratulations! If you want to build another company, just self-fund. If you want outside capital, VCs will chase after you to invest.

Unfortunately, most founders are not in that position: nine out of 10 startups fail. Even if you achieve a high valuation, you might end up like FanDuel’s founders: Their investors got the benefit of a $465 million exit; the founders got zero.

As someone with “founder” on your resume, you face a greater challenge when trying to get a traditional salaried job. You’ve already shown that you really want to lead a company and not just rise up the ladder, which means some employers are less likely to hire you. One research paper found:

[F]ormer founders receive fewer callbacks than non-founders; however, all founders are not disadvantaged similarly. Former founders of successful ventures receive even fewer [emphasis added] callbacks than former founders of failed ventures. Through 20 interviews with technical recruiters, we highlight the mechanisms driving this founder-experience discount: concerns related to the applicant’s capability and ability to fit into and remain committed to the wage employment and the hiring firm.

At my prior firm, ff Venture Capital, we invested in a company co-founded by Nate Jenkins, who had a successful exit, but not quite enough to buy a private plane. He’s now researching his next opportunity and interviewing for some jobs. At the end of a recent interview, the interviewer summarized, “I’ll hire you, but is this what you really want to do?”

That said, Samuel Sabin, CEO of HireBlue, observed, “Some founders who work better with more resources at their disposal may be tapped for intrapreneurship roles. Also, some companies value a self-starter mentality.”

So what should you do? Especially if your life partner and/or bank account are burnt out on the income volatility of startups?

I’ve been in this situation myself when I shut down one startup and exited two others. I think you have six main options:

Full-time initiatives

  1. Launch a new company.
  2. Get a job.

Part-time activities

  1. Angel investing, venture capital and mentoring.
  2. Consulting.
  3. Sell information products.
  4. Education and self-improvement.

At Versatile VC, our new VC fund, we’re creating an online community just for founders who are in transition, Founders’ Next Move. We hope you will join us!

Full-time initiatives

Launch a new company

If you want to work on your startup idea, the bar for starting a company should always be very high. VCs have a diversified portfolio and most of their investments die. You don’t have a diverse portfolio and so you’re taking far more risk than the VCs. For free resources to help research your ideas, see What startup will you build? Identifying market white space.

Tiger Global leads $30M investment into Briq, a fintech for the construction industry

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Briq, which has developed a fintech platform used by the construction industry, has raised $30 million in a Series B funding round led by Tiger Global Management.

The financing is among the largest Series B fundraises by a construction software startup, according to the company, and brings Briq’s total raised to $43 million since its January 2018 inception. Existing backers Eniac Ventures and Blackhorn Ventures also participated in the round.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy is a former executive at construction tech giant Procore (which recently went public and has a market cap of $10.4 billion) and Canadian software giant CMiC. Wall Street veteran Ron Goldshmidt is co-founder and COO.

Briq describes its offering as a financial planning and workflow automation platform that “drastically reduces” the time to run critical financial processes, while increasing the accuracy of forecasts and financial plans.

Briq has developed a toolbox of proprietary technology that it says allows it to extract and manipulate financial data without the use of APIs. It also has developed construction-specific data models that allows it to build out projections and create models of how much a project might cost, and how much could conceivably be made. Currently, Briq manages or forecasts about $30 billion in construction volume.

Specifically, Briq has two main offerings: Briq’s Corporate Performance Management (CPM) platform, which models financial outcomes at the project and corporate level and BriqCash, a construction-specific banking platform for managing invoices and payments. 

Put simply, Briq aims to allow contractors “to go from plan to pay” in one platform with the goal of solving the age-old problem of construction projects (very often) going over budget. Its longer-term, ambitious mission is to “manage 80% of the money workflows in construction within 10 years.”

The company’s strategy, so far, seems to be working.

From January 2020 to today, ARR has climbed by 200%, according to Hamdy. Briq currently has about 100 employees, compared to 35 a year ago.

Briq has 150 customers, and serves general and specialty contractors from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue.  They include Cafco Construction Management, WestCor Companies and Choate Construction and Harper Construction. The company is currently focused on contractors in North America but does have long-term plans to address larger international markets, Hamdy told TechCrunch.  

Some context

Hamdy came up with the idea for Santa Barbara, California-based Briq after realizing the vast amount of inefficiencies on the financial side of the construction industry. His goal was to do for construction financials what Procore did to document management, and PlanGrid to construction drawing. He started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to become a construction industry unicorn.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy. Image Credits: Briq

“I wanted to figure out how to bring the best of fintech into a construction industry that really guesses every month what the financial outcomes are for projects,” Hamdy told me at the time of the company’s last raise – a $10 million Series A led by Blackhorn Ventures announced in May of 2020. “Getting a handle on financial outcomes is really hard. The vast majority of the time, the forecasted cost to completion is plain wrong. By a lot.”

In fact, according to McKinsey, an astounding 80 percent of projects run over budget, resulting in significant waste and profit loss.

So at the end of a project, contractors often find themselves having doled out more money and resources than originally planned. This can lead to negative cash flow and profit loss. Briq’s platform aims to help contractors identify outliers, and which projects are more at risk.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Briq has proven to be “extremely valuable” to contractors, Hamdy said.

“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” he added.

The Station: Aurora gets closer to a SPAC deal, Spin’s new strategy and Waymo One app numbers

By Kirsten Korosec

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hello and welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to all the ways people and packages move (today and in the future) from Point A to Point B.

We are days away from TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, a one-day virtual event scheduled for June 9 that is bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in transportation. I’ll keep it short and sweet.

If you want to check things out but are short on cash, register and type in “station” for a free pass to the expo and breakout sessions. If you want access to the main stage — where folks like Mate Rimac, Chris Urmson and GM’s Pam Fletcher will be interviewed — then type in “Station50” to buy a full access pass for a 50% discount. Tickets can be accessed here.

Buying a ticket will also give you a months-free subscription to Extra Crunch and access to all the videos of the conference. We have a star-studded group of folks coming from Aurora, AutoX, Gatik, GM, Hyundai, Joby Aviation, Motional, Nuro, Rimac Automobili, Scale AI, Starship Technologies, Toyota Research Institute, WeRide, and Zoox. (to name a handful).

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, opinions or tips. You also can send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

The big micromobility news of the week revolves around Spin, and it’s not about whether or not Ford is spinning out the company; they kept a pretty tight lip on that, but clearly big changes are happening. Co-founder Derrick Ko is stepping down as CEO and moving into an advisory role, along with his other two co-founders Zaizhuang Cheng and Euwyn Poon. In Ko’s place is Ben Bear, who previously served as CBO of Spin.

Along with this news came a flurry of other announcements, but it makes sense to start with Spin’s latest public strategy for winning the e-scooter business. Spin is actively seeking out limited vendor permits with cities. In other words, the company doesn’t want to see its cities messing around with other operators. Spin is seeking exclusive partnerships and is prepared to better itself to get them. It’s positioning itself as the most desirable for cities as it shares even more news…

If Spin wants to have a kind of deal that Lyft-owned CitiBike has with NYC, then it needs to bring more to the table. It’s starting with e-bikes. 5,000 of them, to be specific, in the coming months, starting with Providence, RI in June and spreading outward into a few other mid-tier cities over the summer.

Spin is also flexing its tech that will help make its scooters safe and reliable — just what a city wants in a long-term commitment. This week, it brought its Drover AI-equipped scooters to Milwaukee (with plans to launch in Miami, Seattle and Santa Monica, as well) that are equipped to detect sidewalk and bike lane riding and validate parking. Seattle, Santa Monica and Boise, Idaho will soon be graced by Spin’s new S-200, a three-wheeled adaptive scooter built with Tortoise’s repositioning software that allows a remote operator to move scooters out of gutters or into more dense urban areas.

Tier gets some more money

Berlin-based Tier Mobility, which recently won a London permit, has raised $60 million so it can expand its fleet of vehicles and battery charging networks. Technically, it’s a loan. The asset-backed financing comes from Goldman Sachs.

Let’s talk about bikes

Lyft has got a new e-bike piloting this month, starting in San Francisco, then Chicago and New York. It’ll be dropping the sleek, white bikes with soft purple LEDs at random around the city for people to test out. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater gave it a spin, and his general consensus was, Yeah, it’s a good bike. Can’t complain.

While Lyft may have anti-theft protection on its e-bikes, the rest of us are not so lucky. According to market research company NPD Group, we saw a 63% YOY growth for bike sales in June. Bike Index, a national bike registry group, tells us that the number of bikes stolen has seen similar increases. The number of bikes reported stolen to the service was a little over 10,000 between April and September, compared to nearly 6,000 during the same period in the previous year. That’s an uptick of nearly 68%. So, when are apartment complexes going to be forced to build bike storage rather than car parks?

Best cities for biking

If you are going to risk theft and bike around, you’ll want to do it in one of the cities PeopleForBikes just announced are the best for biking.

“Topping this year’s ratings in the United States are Brooklyn, NY; Berkeley, CA and Provincetown, MA (each ranking first in the large, medium and small U.S. city categories, respectively). Top international performers include Canberra and Alice Springs in Australia; Utrecht and Groningen in the Netherlands and Gatineau, Longueuil and Montreal in Canada, all located in the province of Quebec.”

Biking is not all about fun and commuting. For some of us, it’s work. URB-E, the compact container delivery network that wants to replace trucks with small electric bikes, has announced PackItFresh as its final-mile refrigeration provider. PackItFresh’s totes can keep food at safe temperatures for up to 24 hours, yet another reason supermarkets need to be nixing the delivery trucks in favor of these more sustainable alternatives.

 — Rebecca Bellan

Deal of the week

money the station

I hesitate to put this one under deal of the week, because, well, the deal ain’t done. But it is interesting, and this is my show, so here we are. I’m talking about Aurora, the autonomous vehicle company, and a potential merger with a special purpose acquisition company.

Here’s the tl;dr for those who didn’t catch my Friday story. Several sources within the financial sector told me that Aurora is close to finalizing a deal to merge with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the newest special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson. It appears the valuation is going to be somewhere in the $12 billion neighborhood. The deal is expected to be announced as early as next week. I should add that both Aurora and Reinivent declined to comment.

The Hoffman, Pincus, Thompson trio, who are bullish on a concept that they call “venture capital at scale,” have formed three SPACs, or blank-check companies. Two of those SPACs have announced mergers with private companies. Reinvent Technology Partners announced a deal in February to merge with the electric vertical take off and landing company Joby Aviation, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Reinvent Technology Partners Z merged with home insurance startup Hippo.

Is it possible that the deal could fall apart? Sure. But my sources tell me that it has progressed far enough that it would take a significant issue to derail the agreement. One more note: there is the tricky issue of Hoffman and Reinvent’s existing relationship with Aurora. Hoffman is a board member of Aurora and Reinvent is an investor. While Hoffman and Reinvent showing up on two sides of a SPAC deal would be unusual, it is not unprecedented. Connie Loizos’s accompanying article digs into the increasing cases of conflicts of interest popping up in SPAC deals.

Other deals that got my attention …

Getir, the Istanbul-based grocery delivery app, raised $550m in new funding. This latest injection of capital, which tripled its valuation to $7.5 billion, came just three months after its last financing, the Financial Times reported. The company, which just started to expand outside of Turkey in early 2021, is now planning a U.S. launch this year.

Faction Technology, the Silicon Valley-based startup building three-wheeled electric vehicles for autonomous delivery or human driven jaunts around town, raised $4.3 million in seed funding led by Trucks VC and Fifty Years.

Flink, a Berlin-based on-demand “instant” grocery delivery service built around self-operated dark stores and a smaller assortment (2,400 items) that it says it will deliver in 10 minutes or less, has raised $240 million to expand its business into more cities, and more countries.

FlixMobility, the parent company of the FlixBus coach network and the FlixTrain rail service, has closed more than $650 million in a Series G round of funding that values the Munich-based company at over $3 billion. Jochen Engert, who co-founded and co-leads the company with André Schwämmlein, described the round in a press call that TechCrunch participated in as a “balanced” mix of equity and debt, and said that the plan will be to use the funds to both expand its network in the U.S. market as well as across Europe.

Locus, a startup that uses AI to help businesses map out their logistics, raised $50 million in a new financing round as it looks to expand its presence. The new round, a Series C, was led by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC. Qualcomm Ventures and existing investors Tiger Global Management and Falcon Edge also participated in the round, which brings the startup’s to-date raise to $79 million. The new round valued the startup, which was founded in India, at about $300 million, said a person familiar with the matter.

Realtime Robotics announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.

Roadster, the Palo Alto-based digital platform that gives dealers tools to sell new and used vehicles online has been acquired for $360 million by retail automotive technology company CDK Global Inc. As part of the all-cash deal, Roadster is now a wholly owned subsidiary.

Sennder, a digital freight forwarder that focuses on moving cargo around Europe (and specifically focusing on trucks and “full truck load”, FTL, freight forwarding), has raised $80 million in funding, at a valuation the company confirms is now over $1 billion.

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, dropped the “AI” and has been reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The firm is commemorating its new identity with a new $300 million fund that will focus on emerging technologies and carbon neutrality. The capital is split into two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. The introduction of these two new funds brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million.

Trellis Technologies, the insurance technology platform, raised $10 million in Series A funding led by QED Investors with participation from existing investors NYCA Partners and General Catalyst.

VTB, Russia’s second-largest lender, has bought a $75 million minority stake in car-sharing provider Delimobil, Reuters reported.

Waymo: by the numbers

the station autonomous vehicles1

Waymo has been on my mind lately — and not because of the executive departures that I wrote about last month. No, I’ve been thinking about Waymo and how, or if, it’s been scaling up its Waymo One driverless ride-hailing service, which operates in several Phoenix suburbs. The latest example is that Waymo One can now be accessed and booked through Google Maps.

But what about ridership? The folks at Sensor Tower, the mobile app market intelligence firm, recently shared some numbers that give the tiniest of glimpses into who is at least interested in trying the service.

First, a bit of history. Waymo started an early rider program in April 2017, which allowed vetted members of the public, all of whom signed NDAs, to hail an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan. All of these Waymo-branded vans had human safety operators behind the wheel.

In December 2018, the company launched Waymo One, the self-driving car service and accompanying app. Waymo-trained test drivers were still behind the wheel when the ride-hailing service began. Early rider program members were the first to be invited to the service. As these folks were shifted over to the Waymo One service, the NDA was lifted.

The first meaningful signs that Waymo was ready to put people in vehicles without human safety operators popped up in fall 2019. TechCrunch contributor Ed Niedermeyer was among the first (media) to hail a driverless ride. These driverless rides were limited and free. And importantly, still fell under the early rider program, which had that extra NDA protection. Waymo slowly scaled until about 5 to 10% of its total rides in 2020 were fully driverless for its exclusive group of early riders under NDA. Then COVID-19 hit.

In October 2020, the company announced that members of Waymo One — remember this is the sans NDA service — would be able to take family and friends along on their fully driverless rides in the Phoenix area. Existing Waymo One members were given first access to the driverless rides. The company started to welcome more people directly into the service through its app, which is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Waymo said that 100% of its rides would be fully driverless, which it has maintained. Today, anyone can download the app and hail a driverless ride.

OK, back to the numbers. Sensor Tower shared monthly estimates for Waymo’s installs from the U.S. App Store and Google Play. The company said that most of the installs are on iOS, as it looks like the Waymo app only became available on Android in April 2021. This isn’t a ridership number. It does show how interest has grown, and picked up since February 2021.

Waymo one app data

Image Credits: Sensor Tower

Policy corner

the-station-delivery

Hi folks, welcome back to Policy Corner.

Another infrastructure bill was proposed in Washington this week. The House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure introduced a new bill that would invest $547 billion over the next five years on surface transport. While much of those funds would go toward improving America’s roads, bridges, and passenger rail, the INVEST in America Act would dedicate around $4 billion in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and around $4 billion to invest in zero-emission transit vehicles.


And that’s in addition to major infrastructure bills already proposed by President Joe Biden and House Democrats. It’s likely that this bill, should it pass, would be significantly scaled back — just as Congressional Republicans are attempting to do with Biden’s infrastructure plan. You can read more about the bill here.

President Biden has set his sights on battery manufacturing as a way to recover and reuse critical minerals in the EV supply chain. This is after it was reported that he walked back earlier signals that he might support domestic mining for these minerals, like lithium. Instead, it looks like his plan is to push for continued importing of the metals from foreign countries and then to recycle and reuse them at the end of a battery’s life.

This news is a blow to America’s mining industry but sure to be a boost for metal recyclers, like Redwood Materials in Nevada and Canadian company Li-Cycle, which is expanding its operations in the States.

Some of the biggest pushback against mining has come from environmental and conservation groups. A good example is the situation currently unfolding out in Nevada, where a proposed lithium mine may be halted due to the presence of a rare wildflower. Conservation groups want to get protected status for the flower. If they succeed? No more mine.

The final piece of news this week is a recent survey from Pew Research Center which found that 51% of Americans oppose phasing out the production of gas-powered cars and trucks. The report also found that those reported hearing “a lot” about EVs were more likely to seriously consider one for their next vehicle purchase. Also, while Americans are roughly in agreement that EVs are better for the environment, they’re equally in agreement that they’re more costly.

The upshot is that more and more Americans are coming around to the idea of EVs and the question of their benefits (on the environment, for example) is pretty well understood. But policymakers and OEMs clearly still have a ways to go in convincing a huge swathe of Americans to get on board.

— Aria Alamalhodaei

A few more notes

 

I won’t be providing the looooonnnnggggg roundup of news this week, but here are a few little bits including some hires and other tidbits.

7-Eleven said it plans to install 500 direct-current fast charging ports at 250 locations across North America by the end of 2022. These charging ports will be owned and operated by 7-Eleven, as opposed to fuel at its filling stations, which must be purchased from suppliers.

Baraja, the lidar startup, appointed former Magna and DaimlerChrysler veterans to its executive team, including Paul Eichenberg as chief strategy officer and Jim Kane as vp of automotive engineering.

Brian Heater, hardware editor here at TechCrunch, covered a recent gathering of ride-hailing drivers in Long Island City, Queens. The group protested outside of Uber’s offices ahead of a proposed state bill. The drivers support the proposed bill that would make it easy for gig economy workers in the state to unionize.

Cruise, the autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has secured a permit that will allow the company to shuttle passengers in its test vehicles without a human safety operator behind the wheel.

The permit, issued by the California Public Utilities Commission as part of its driverless pilot program, is one of several regulatory requirements autonomous vehicle companies must meet before they can deploy commercially. This permit is important — and Cruise is the first to land this particular one — but it does not allow the company to charge passengers for any rides in test AVs.

DeepMap has developed a crowdsourced mapping service called RoadMemory that lets automakers turn data collected from their own fleets of passenger vehicles and trucks into maps. The company says the tool is designed to expand geographic coverage more quickly and support hands-off autonomous driving features everywhere.

Joby Aviation is partnering with REEF Technology, one of the country’s largest parking garage operators, and a real estate acquisition company Neighborhood Property Group to build out its network of vertiports, with an initial focus on Los Angeles, Miami, New York and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Populus, the platform that helps cities manage shared mobility services, streets and curbs, launched a new digital car-sharing parking feature in Oakland. The gist is that this feature helps cities collect data on car-sharing and deploy curbside paying payments. The company launched this particular product in 2018 and has been expanding to different cities.

Starship Technologies, the autonomous sidewalk delivery startup, has hired a new CEO. The company tapped Alastair Westgarth, the former CEO of Alphabet’s Loon, to lead the company as it looks to expand its robotics delivery service. Loon, Alphabet’s experiment to deliver broadband via high-altitude balloons, was shut down for good at the beginning of this year. Prior to working at Loon, Westgarth headed the wireless antennae company Quintel Solutions, was a vice president at telecommunications company Nortel and director of engineering at Bell Mobility.

Yuri Suzuki, a partner at design consultancy firm Pentagram, recently conducted a research project into the crucial role electric car sound has on a user’s safety, enjoyability, communication and brand recognition, out of which he developed a range of car sounds.

Google’s Gradient Ventures leads $8.2M Series A for Vault Platform’s misconduct reporting SaaS

By Natasha Lomas

Fixing workplace misconduct reporting is a mission that’s snagged London-based Vault Platform backing from Google’s AI focused fund, Gradient Ventures, which is the lead investor in an $8.2 million Series A that’s being announced today.

Other investors joining the round are Illuminate Financial, along with existing investors including Kindred Capital and Angular Ventures. Its $4.2M seed round was closed back in 2019.

Vault sells a suite of SaaS tools to enterprise-sized or large/scale-up companies to support them to pro-actively manage internal ethics and integrity issues. As well as tools for staff to report issues, data and analytics is baked into the platform — so it can support with customers’ wider audit and compliance requirements.

In an interview with TechCrunch, co-founder and CEO Neta Meidav said that as well as being wholly on board with the overarching mission to upgrade legacy reporting tools like hotlines provided to staff to try to surface conduct-related workplace risks (be that bullying and harassment; racism and sexism; or bribery, corruption and fraud), as you might expect Gradient Ventures was interested in the potential for applying AI to further enhance Vault’s SaaS-based reporting tool.

A feature of its current platform, called ‘GoTogether’, consists of an escrow system that allows users to submit misconduct reports to the relevant internal bodies but only if they are not the first or only person to have made a report about the same person — the idea being that can help encourage staff (or outsiders, where open reporting is enabled) to report concerns they may otherwise hesitate to, for various reasons.

Vault now wants to expand the feature’s capabilities so it can be used to proactively surface problematic conduct that may not just relate to a particular individual but may even affect a whole team or division — by using natural language processing to help spot patterns and potential linkages in the kind of activity being reported.

“Our algorithms today match on an alleged perpetrator’s identity. However many events that people might report on are not related to a specific person — they can be more descriptive,” explains Meidav. “For example if you are experiencing some irregularities in accounting in your department, for example, and you’re suspecting that there is some sort of corruption or fraudulent activity happening.”

“If you think about the greatest [workplace misconduct] disasters and crises that happened in recent years — the Dieselgate story at Volkswagen, what happened in Boeing — the common denominator in all these cases is that there’s been some sort of a serious ethical breach or failure which was observed by several people within the organization in remote parts of the organization. And the dots weren’t connected,” she goes on. “So the capacity we’re currently building and increasing — building upon what we already have with GoTogether — is the ability to connect on these repeated events and be able to connect and understand and read the human input. And connect the dots when repeated events are happening — alerting companies’ boards that there is a certain ‘hot pocket’ that they need to go and investigate.

“That would save companies from great risk, great cost, and essentially could prevent huge loss. Not only financial but reputational, sometimes it’s even loss to human lives… That’s where we’re getting to and what we’re aiming to achieve.”

There is the question of how defensible Vault’s GoTogether feature is — how easily it could be copied — given you can’t patent an idea. So baking in AI smarts may be a way to layer added sophistication to try to maintain a competitive edge.

“There’s some very sophisticated, unique technology there in the backend so we are continuing to invest in this side of our technology. And Gradient’s investment and the specific we’re receiving from Google now will only increase that element and that side of our business,” says Meidav when we ask about defensibility.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Gradient Ventures founder and managing partner, Anna Patterson, added: “Vault tackles an important space with an innovative and timely solution. Vault’s application provides organizations with a data-driven approach to tackling challenges like occupational fraud, bribery or corruption incidents, safety failures and misconduct. Given their impressive team, technology, and customer traction, they are poised to improve the modern workplace.”

The London-based startup was only founded in 2018 — and while it’s most keen to talk about disrupting legacy hotline systems, which offer only a linear and passive conduit for misconduct reporting, there are a number of other startups playing in the same space. Examples include the likes of LA-based AllVoices, YC-backed WhispliHootsworth and Spot to name a few.

Competition seems likely to continue to increase as regulatory requirements around workplace reporting keep stepping up.

The incoming EU Whistleblower Protection Directive is one piece of regulation Vault expects will increase demand for smarter compliance solutions — aka “TrustTech”, as it seeks to badge it — as it will require companies of more than 250 employees to have a reporting solution in place by the end of December 2021, encouraging European businesses to cast around for tools to help shrink their misconduct-related risk.

She also suggests a platform solution can help bridge gaps between different internal teams that may need to be involved in addressing complaints, as well as helping to speed up internal investigations by offering the ability to chat anonymously with the original reporter.

Meidav also flags the rising attention US regulators are giving to workplace misconduct reporting — noting some recent massive awards by the SEC to external whistleblowers, such as the $28M paid out to a single whistleblower earlier this year (in relation to the Panasonic Avionics consultant corruption case).

She also argues that growing numbers of companies going public (such as via the SPAC trend, where there will have been reduced regulatory scrutiny ahead of the ‘blank check’ IPO) raises reporting requirements generally — meaning, again, more companies will need to have in place a system operated by a third party which allows anonymous and non-anonymous reporting. (And, well, we can only speculate whether companies going public by SPAC may be in greater need of misconduct reporting services vs companies that choose to take a more traditional and scrutinized route to market… )

“Just a few years back I had to convince investors that this category it really is a category — and fast forward to 2021, congratulations! We have a market here. It’s a growing category and there is competition in this space,” says Meidav.

“What truly differentiates Vault is that we did not just focus on digitizing an old legacy process. We focused on leveraging technology to truly empower more misconduct to surface internally and for employees to speak up in ways that weren’t available for them before. GoTogether is truly unique as well as the things that we’re doing on the operational side for a company — such as collaboration.”

She gives an example of how a customer in the oil and gas sector configured the platform to make use of an anonymous chat feature in Vault’s app so they could provide employees with a secure direct-line to company leadership.

“They’ve utilizing the anonymous chat that the app enables for people to have a direct line to leadership,” she says. “That’s incredible. That is such a progress, forward looking way to be utilizing this tool.”

Vault Platform’s suite of tools include an employee app and a Resolution Hub for compliance, HR, risk and legal teams (Image credits: Vault Platform)

Meidav says Vault has around 30 customers at this stage, split between the US and EU — its core regions of focus.

And while its platform is geared towards enterprises, its early customer base includes a fair number of scale-ups — with familiar names like Lemonade, Airbnb, Kavak, G2 and OVO Energy on the list.

Scale ups may be natural customers for this sort of product given the huge pressures that can be brought to bear upon company culture as a startup switches to expanding headcount very rapidly, per Meidav.

“They are the early adopters and they are also very much sensitive to events such as these kind of [workplace] scandals as it can impact them greatly… as well as the fact that when a company goes through a hyper growth — and usually you see hyper growth happening in tech companies more than in any other type of sector — hyper growth is at time when you really, as management, as leadership, it’s really important to safeguard your culture,” she suggests.

“Because it changes very, very quickly and these changes can lead to all sorts of things — and it’s really important that leadership is on top of it. So when a company goes through hyper growth it’s an excellent time for them to incorporate a tool such as Vault. As well as the fact that every company that even thinks of an IPO in the coming months or years will do very well to put a tool like Vault in place.”

Expanding Vault’s own team is also on the cards after this Series A close, as it guns for the next phase of growth for its own business. Presumably, though, it’s not short of a misconduct reporting solution.

Extra Crunch roundup: Guest posts wanted, ‘mango’ seed rounds, Expensify’s tech stack

By Walter Thompson

Prospective contributors regularly ask us about which topics Extra Crunch subscribers would like to hear more about, and the answer is always the same:

  • Actionable advice that is backed up by data and/or experience.
  • Strategic insights that go beyond best practices and offer specific recommendations readers can try out for themselves.
  • Industry analysis that paints a clear picture of the companies, products and services that characterize individual tech sectors.

Our submission guidelines haven’t changed, but Managing Editor Eric Eldon and I wrote a short post that identifies the topics we’re prioritizing at the moment:

  • How-to articles for early-stage founders.
  • Market analysis of different tech sectors.
  • Growth marketing strategies.
  • Alternative fundraising.
  • Quality of life (personal health, sustainability, proptech, transportation).

If you’re a skillful entrepreneur, founder or investor who’s interested in helping someone else build their business, please read our latest guidelines, then send your ideas to guestcolumns@techcrunch.com.

Thanks for reading; I hope you have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist


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Opting for a debt round can take you from Series A startup to Series B unicorn

Image of a tree in a field, with half barren to represent debt and half flush with cash to represent success.

Image Credits: olegkalina (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Debt is a tool, and like any other — be it a hammer or handsaw — it’s extremely valuable when used skillfully but can cause a lot of pain when mismanaged. This is a story about how it can go right.

Mario Ciabarra, the founder and CEO of Quantum Metric, breaks down how his company was on a “tremendous growth curve” — and then the pandemic hit.

“As the weeks following the initial shelter-in-place orders ticked by, the rush toward digital grew exponentially, and opportunities to secure new customers started piling up,” Ciabarra writes. “A solution to our money problems, perhaps? Not so fast — it was a classic case of needing to spend in order to make.”

If companies want to preserve equity, debt can be an advantageous choice. Here’s how Quantum Metric did it.

4 proven approaches to CX strategy that make customers feel loved

CX is the hottest acronym in business

Image Credits: mucahiddin / Getty Images

People have been working to optimize customer experiences (CX) since we began selling things to each other.

A famous San Francisco bakery has an exhaust fan at street level; each morning, its neighbors awake to the scent of orange-cinnamon morning buns wafting down the block. Similarly, savvy hairstylists know to greet returning customers by asking if they want a repeat or something new.

Online, CX may encompass anything from recommending the right shoes to AI that knows when to send a frustrated traveler an upgrade for a delayed flight.

In light of Qualtrics’ spinout and IPO and Sprinklr’s recent S-1, Rebecca Liu-Doyle, principal at Insight Partners, describes four key attributes shared by “companies that have upped their CX game.”

Twitter’s acquisition strategy: Eat the public conversation

woman talking with megaphone

Image Credits: We Are (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

What is a microblogging service doing buying a social podcasting company and a newsletter tool while also building a live broadcasting sub-app? Is there even a strategy at all?

Yes. Twitter is trying to revitalize itself by adding more contexts for discourse to its repertoire. The result, if everything goes right, will be an influence superapp that hasn’t existed anywhere before. The alternative is nothing less than the destruction of Twitter into a link-forwarding service.

Let’s talk about how Twitter is trying to eat the public conversation.

Reading the IPO market’s tea leaves

Although it was a truncated holiday week here in the United States, there was a bushel of IPO news. We sorted through the updates and came up with a series of sentiment calls regarding these public offerings.

Earlier this week, we took a look at:

  • Marqeta‘s first IPO price range (fintech).
  • 1st Dibs‘ first IPO price range (e-commerce).
  • Zeta Global‘s IPO pricing (martech).
  • The start of SoFi trading post-SPAC (fintech).
  • The latest from BarkBox (e-commerce).

How Expensify hacked its way to a robust, scalable tech stack

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Part 4 of Expensify’s EC-1 digs into the company’s engineering and technology, with Anna Heim noting that the group of P2P pirates/hackers set out to build an expense management app by sticking to their gut and making their own rules.

They asked questions few considered, like: Why have lots of employees when you can find a way to get work done and reach impressive profitability with a few? Why work from an office in San Francisco when the internet lets you work from anywhere, even a sailboat in the Caribbean?

It makes sense in a way: If you’re a pirate, to hell with the rules, right?

With that in mind, one could assume Expensify decided to ask itself: Why not build our own totally custom tech stack?

Indeed, Expensify has made several tech decisions that were met with disbelief, but its belief in its own choices has paid off over the years, and the company is ready to IPO any day now.

How much of a tech advantage Expensify enjoys owing to such choices is an open question, but one thing is clear: These choices are key to understanding Expensify and its roadmap. Let’s take a look.

Etsy asks, ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ with $1.6B Depop purchase

GettyImages 969952548

Image Credits: Getty Images

The news this week that e-commerce marketplace Etsy will buy Depop, a startup that provides a secondhand e-commerce marketplace, for more than $1.6 billion may not have made a large impact on the acquiring company’s share price thus far, but it provides a fascinating look into what brands may be willing to pay for access to the Gen Z market.

Etsy is buying Gen Z love. Think about it — Gen Z is probably not the first demographic that comes to mind when you consider Etsy, so you can see why the deal may pencil out in the larger company’s mind.

But it isn’t cheap. The lesson from the Etsy-Depop deal appears to be that large e-commerce players are willing to splash out for youth-approved marketplaces. That’s good news for yet-private companies that are popular with the budding generation.

Confluent’s IPO brings a high-growth, high-burn SaaS model to the public markets

Image Credits: Andriy Onufriyenko / Getty Images

Confluent became the latest company to announce its intent to take the IPO route, officially filing its S-1 paperwork this week.

The company, which has raised over $455 million since it launched in 2014, was most recently valued at just over $4.5 billion when it raised $250 million last April.

What does Confluent do? It built a streaming data platform on top of the open-source Apache Kafka project. In addition to its open-source roots, Confluent has a free tier of its commercial cloud offering to complement its paid products, helping generate top-of-funnel inflows that it converts to sales.

What we can see in Confluent is nearly an old-school, high-burn SaaS business. It has taken on oodles of capital and used it in an increasingly expensive sales model.

How to win consulting, board and deal roles with PE and VC funds

Jumping to the highest level - goldfish jumping in a bigger bowl - aspiration and achievement concept. This is a 3d render illustration

Image Credits: Orla (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Would you like to work with private equity and venture capital funds?

There are relatively few jobs directly inside private equity and venture capital funds, and those jobs are highly competitive.

However, there are many other ways you can work and earn money within the industry — as a consultant, an interim executive, a board member, a deal executive partnering to buy a company, an executive in residence or as an entrepreneur in residence.

Let’s take a look at the different ways you can work with the investment community.

The existential cost of decelerated growth

Even among the most valuable tech shops, shareholder return is concentrated in share price appreciation, and buybacks, which is the same thing to a degree.

Slowly growing tech companies worth single-digit billions can’t play the buyback game to the same degree as the majors. And they are growing more slowly, so even a similar buyback program in relative scale would excite less.

Grow or die, in other words. Or at least grow or come under heavy fire from external investors who want to oust the founder-CEO and “reform” the company. But if you can grow quickly, welcome to the land of milk and honey.

Even among the most valuable tech shops, shareholder return is concentrated in share price appreciation, and buybacks, which is the same thing to a degree.

Slowly growing tech companies worth single-digit billions can’t play the buyback game to the same degree as the majors. And they are growing more slowly, so even a similar buyback program in relative scale would excite less.

Grow or die, in other words. Or at least grow or come under heavy fire from external investors who want to oust the founder-CEO and “reform” the company. But if you can grow quickly, welcome to the land of milk and honey.

Hormonal health is a massive opportunity: Where are the unicorns?

uterus un paper work.Pink backgroundArt concept of female reproductive health

Image Credits: Carol Yepes (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There is a growing group of entrepreneurs who are betting that hormonal health is the key wedge into the digital health boom.

Hormones are fluctuating, ever-evolving, and diverse — but these founders say they’re also key to solving many health conditions that disproportionately impact women, from diabetes to infertility to mental health challenges.

Many believe it’s that complexity that underscores the opportunity. Hormonal health sits at the center of conversations around personalized medicine and women’s health: By 2025, women’s health could be a $50 billion industry, and by 2026, digital health more broadly is estimated to hit $221 billion.

Still, as funding for women’s health startups drops and stigma continues to impact where venture dollars go, it’s unclear whether the sector will remain in its infancy or hit a true inflection point.

3 lessons we learned after raising $6.3M from 50 investors

Image of businesspeople climbing ladders up an arrow toward three increasingly tall piles of cash.

Image Credits: sorbetto (opens in a new window)/ Getty Images

Two years ago, founders of calendar assistant platform Reclaim were looking for a “mango” seed round — a boodle of cash large enough to help them transition from the prototype phase to staffing up for a public launch.

Although the team received offers, co-founder Henry Shapiro says the few that materialized were poor options, partially because Reclaim was still pre-product.

“So one summer morning, my co-founder and I sat down in his garage — where we’d been prototyping, pitching and iterating for the past year — and realized that as hard as it was, we would have to walk away entirely and do a full reset on our fundraising strategy,” he writes.

Shapiro shares what he learned from embracing failure and offers three conclusions “every founder should consider before they decide to go out and pitch investors.”

For SaaS startups, differentiation is an iterative process

For SaaS success, differentiation is crucial

Image Credits: Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Although software as a service has been thriving as a sector for years, it has gone into overdrive in the past year as businesses responded to the pandemic by speeding up the migration of important functions to the cloud, ActiveCampaign founder and CEO Jason VandeBoom writes in a guest column.

“We’ve all seen the news of SaaS startups raising large funding rounds, with deal sizes and valuations steadily climbing. But as tech industry watchers know only too well, large funding rounds and valuations are not foolproof indicators of sustainable growth and longevity.”

VandeBoom notes that to scale sustainably, SaaS startups need to “stand apart from the herd at every phase of development. Failure to do so means a poor outcome for founders and investors.”

“As a founder who pivoted from on-premise to SaaS back in 2016, I have focused on scaling my company (most recently crossing 145,000 customers) and in the process, learned quite a bit about making a mark,” VandeBoom writes. “Here is some advice on differentiation at the various stages in the life of a SaaS startup.”

Autonomous vehicle startup Aurora in final talks to merge with Reid Hoffman’s newest SPAC

By Kirsten Korosec

Autonomous vehicle startup Aurora is close to finalizing a deal to merge with Reinvent Technology Partners Y, the newest special purpose acquisition company launched by LinkedIn co-founder and investor Reid Hoffman, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and managing partner Michael Thompson, according to several sources familiar with the talks.

One of the sticking points is the targeted valuation, which had been as high as $20 billion. It is now closer to $12 billion and the deal is expected to be announced as early as next week, said multiple sources who have asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to discuss the deal. Aurora declined to comment. Reinvent also declined to comment.

The Hoffman, Pincus, Thompson trio, who are bullish on a concept that they call “venture capital at scale,” have formed three SPACs, or blank check companies. Two of those SPACs have announced mergers with private companies. Reinvent Technology Partners announced a deal in February to merge with the electric vertical take off and landing company Joby Aviation, which will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange later this year. Reinvent Technology Partners Z merged with home insurance startup Hippo.

Their latest SPAC, known as Reinvent Technology Partners Y,  priced its initial public offering of 85 million units at $10 per unit to raise $850 million. The SPAC issued an additional 12.7 million shares to cover over allotments with total gross proceeds of $977 million, according to regulatory filings. The units are listed on Nasdaq exchange and trade under the ticker symbol “RTPYU.”

Aurora already has a relationship with Hoffman. In February 2018, Aurora raised $90 million from Greylock Partners and Index Ventures. Hoffman, who is a partner at Greylock and Index Ventures’ Mike Volpi became board members of Aurora as part of the Series A round. The following year, Aurora raised more than $530 million in a Series B round led by Sequoia Capital and included from Amazon, T. Rowe Price Associates. Lightspeed Venture Partners, Geodesic, Shell Ventures and Reinvent Capital also participated in the round, as well as previous investors Greylock and Index Ventures.

While Hoffman and Reinvent showing up on two sides of a SPAC deal would be unusual, it is not unprecedented. For instance, a blank check company formed by T.J. Rodgers announced in February a merger with Enovix, a battery technology company that he has been a director of since 2012 and is its largest shareholder, Bloomberg reported at the time. In this case, Hoffman is a board member, but not its largest shareholder.

Aurora, which was founded in 2017 by Sterling Anderson, Drew Bagnell and Chris Urmson, has had a high-flying year. In December, the company reached an agreement with Uber to buy the ride-hailing firm’s self-driving unit in a complex deal that value the combined company at $10 billion.

Aurora did not pay cash for Uber ATG, a company that was valued at $7.25 billion following a $1 billion investment in 2019 from Toyota, DENSO and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. Instead, Uber handed over its equity in ATG and invested $400 million into Aurora. The deal gave Uber a 26% stake in the combined company, according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (As a refresher, Uber held an 86.2% stake (on a fully diluted basis) in Uber ATG, according to filings with the SEC. Uber ATG’s investors held a combined stake of 13.8% in the company.)

Since the acquisition, Aurora has spent the past several months integrating Uber ATG employees and now has a workforce of about 1,600 people. Aurora more recently said it reached an agreement with Volvo to jointly develop autonomous semi-trucks for North America. That partnership, which is expected to last several years and is through Volvo’s Autonomous Solutions unit, will focus on developing and deploying trucks built to operate autonomously on highways between hubs for Volvo customers.

In March, Aurora disclosed in a regulatory filing, that it has sold $54.9 million in an equity offering that kicked off in March 2021.

TezLab CEO Ben Schippers to discuss the Tesla effect and the next wave of EV startups at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.

TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.

Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of TezLab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla  because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up TezLab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.

The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.

Emergence’s Lotti Siniscalco and Retail Zipline’s Melissa Wong will join us on Extra Crunch Live

By Jordan Crook

For all that’s said about fundraising and working alongside investors, rarely do we get to see founders and their investors in candid conversation with one another. Extra Crunch Live is changing that. On the weekly live show, we sit down with founders and the VCs who funded them to talk about how they came together on the deal, what stood out about the other party that led to their commitment and how they operate today. We also (usually) take a walk through their early pitch decks to get a feel for how success starts.

On an upcoming episode of Extra Crunch Live, we’ll sit down with Emergence’s Lotti Siniscalco and Retail Zipline’s Melissa Wong to discuss all that and more. The event goes down on Wednesday, June 23 at 3 p.m. ET/noon PT. You can register to attend right here.

Siniscalco is a principal at Emergence Capital, investing in early-stage enterprise software companies. She currently serves on the board of directors at Whistic and High Alpha. Prior to Emergence, she was an investor in financial services and technology at Advent International, a PE firm, and led diligence for Ribbit Capital (also fintech focused) before that.

In other words, she’s an expert in fintech and can bring a wealth of wisdom to our conversation around fundraising and startup growth.

Melissa Wong, on the other hand, has spent 10 years in retail communications at Old Navy. It was here that she realized a problem that Zipline Retail, a retail communication and store execution platform, could solve and set out on her own venture.

Extra Crunch Live also features the ECL Pitch-off, where startups in the audience can virtually “raise their hand” to pitch their startup live on our stream. Our expert guests will give their feedback on each pitch. If you want to throw your hat in the ring, you have to show up.

Extra Crunch Live is accessible to everyone, but only Extra Crunch members can access the content on demand. We do these every week, so there are scores of episodes across a wide variety of startup sectors in the ECL Library. It’s but one of many reasons to become an Extra Crunch member. Join here.

 

Domain experts wanted: Submit your guest articles to Extra Crunch

By Walter Thompson

Guest articles are hugely popular with our startup audience — if the topics are right.

Prospective authors regularly ask us about which topics Extra Crunch subscribers would like to hear more about. Here are some pointers:

  1. How-tos: Generally, early-stage founders want the latest useful information about how to create a company, including fundraising, growth and team-building. What has been changing in your area of expertise that would surprise people who have done a startup or two before?
  2. Market analysis: Our readers want to learn more about the latest developments in emerging technology sectors from people who have some sort of special viewpoint into the action. They want comprehensive posts that paint a clear picture of the companies, products and services that characterize individual tech sectors today. The focus can range from tech being applied to old-line industries or being used to create entirely new categories.

Ideas? Submit to guestcolumns@techcrunch.com.

Right now, we are especially interested in submissions from authors who have expertise in the following subtopics:

Growth marketing

By definition, nearly every startup that has figured out its product-market fit is trying to grow fast. Our audience always wants to hear the latest ideas that they might be able to apply, too. Whether it’s related to SEO, content, email, social or other marketing channels, they’re looking for granular advice that can help them find and engage the right users. Founders and investors who have growth marketing experience will go to the front of the line.

Alternative fundraising

We cover a lot of venture capital, naturally, but we have also been covering the rise of alternative fundraising over the years, including revenue-based investing, crowdfunding, social and beyond. Founders in search of funding are generally open to new ideas and iterations, particularly from other founders and experts who are pioneering effective new concepts.

Quality of life

Tech has infused all parts of our lives and promises better answers for the physical world around us. But the hopes of today, from personal well-being to the prosperity of cities to a sustainable planet, often feel out of reach. We are especially eager for emerging solutions from industry experts in personal health, housing and transportation, and environmental and climate topics.

One final note: We only publish a handful of columns each week on Extra Crunch given our other editorial initiatives, but we would like to do more — especially with domain experts who are interested in contributing on a recurring basis. When working with repeat authors, we will also publish one-off articles about public-interest topics on TechCrunch without a paywall.

SoftBank pours up to $150M into GBM, a Mexico City-based investment platform

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Grupo Bursátil Mexicano (GBM) is a 35-year-old investment platform in the Mexican stock market. In its first three decades of life, GBM was focused on providing investment services to high net worth individuals and local and global institutions.

Over the past decade, the Mexico City-based brokerage has ramped up its digital efforts, and, in the past five years, has evolved its business model to offer services to all Mexicans with the same products and services it offers large estates.

Today, GBM is announcing it has received an investment of “up to” $150 million from SoftBank via the Japanese conglomerate’s Latin America Fund at a valuation of “over $1 billion.” The investment is being made through one of GBM’s subsidiaries and is not contingent on anything, according to the company.

Co-CEO Pedro de Garay Montero told TechCrunch that GBM has built an app, GBM+, that organizes and invests clients’ money through three different tools: Wealth Management, Trading and Smart Cash.

Last year was a “historic” one for the company, he said, and GBM went from having 38,000 investment accounts in January 2020 to more than 650,000 by year’s end. In the first quarter of 2021, that number had grown to over 1 million — representing more than 30x growth from the beginning of 2020.

For some context, according to the National Banking and Securities Commission (CNBV), there were only 298,000 brokerage accounts in Mexico at the end of 2019, and that number climbed to 940,000 by the end of 2020 — with GBM holding a large share of them.

Most of GBM’s clients are retail clients, but the company also caters to “most of the largest investment managers worldwide,” as well as global companies such as Netflix, Google and BlackRock. Specifically, it services 40% of the largest public corporations in Mexico and a large base of ultra high net worth individuals.

The company is planning to use its new capital in part to invest “heavily” in customer acquisition.

Montero said that half of its team of 450 are tech professionals, and that the company plans to also continue hiring as it focuses on growth in its B2C and B2B offerings and expanding into new verticals.

“We are improving our already robust financial education offering,” he added, “so that Mexicans can take control of their finances. GBM’s mission is to transform Mexico into a country of investors.”

Because Mexico is such a huge market — with a population of over 120 million and a GDP of more than $1 trillion — GBM is laser-focused on growing its presence in the country.

“The financial services industry is dominated by big banks and is inefficient, expensive and provides a poor client experience. This has resulted in less than 1% of individuals having an investment account,” Montero told TechCrunch. “We will be targeting clients through our own platform and internal advisors, as well as growing our base of external advisors to reach as many people as possible with the best investment products and user experience.”

When it comes to institutional clients, he believes there is “enormous potential” in serving both the large corporations and the SMEs “who have received limited services from banks.”

Juan Franck, investment lead for SoftBank Latin America Fund in Mexico, believes the retail investment space in Mexico is at an inflection point.

“The investing culture in Mexico has historically been low compared to the rest of the world, even when specifically compared to other countries in Latin America, like Brazil,” he added. “However, the landscape is quickly changing as, through technology, Mexicans are being provided more education around investing and more investment alternatives.”

In the midst of this shift, SoftBank was impressed by GBM’s “clear vision and playbook,” Franck said.

So, despite being a decades-old company, SoftBank sees big potential in the strength of the digital platform that GBM has built out.

“GBM is the leading broker in Mexico in terms of trading activity and broker accounts,” he said. “The company combines decades of industry know-how with an entrepreneurial drive to revolutionize the wealth management space in the country.”

A new video platform offering classes about skilled trades begins to build momentum

By Connie Loizos

Trade schools are nothing new, but a new startup called Copeland thinks it can build a big business by bringing education about plumbing, drywall, how to build cabinetry and more to the masses through high-quality classes that feature industry pros and professional educators.

If it sounds like a kind of MasterClass for all things construction, that’s not an accident. Copeland was born from the mind of renowned investor Michael Dearing, who wrote the first check to MasterClass (now reportedly valued at $2.5 billion) and spied an opportunity in pairing underemployed Americans with homebuilders who can’t find enough people to hire. Meanwhile, its cofounder and CEO, Gabe Jewell, previously spent nearly four years as a creative producer with the San Francisco-based company.

Of course, in addition to trade schools, Copeland is competing with an endless, and free, number of YouTube videos about how to both build and dismantle all kinds. Still, the year-old, six-person, Bay Area-based company, which has produced nine distinct pieces of content so far, has investors excited about its prospects. Indeed, in addition to early backing from Dearing, the company just raised $5 million in seed funding from Defy.vc and Collaborative Fund in a round that brings its total funding to date to $7 million.

This afternoon, we talked with Jewell to learn more about what Copeland — named after an educator — is assembling, and whether homeowners, as well as aspiring tradespeople, are target customers, too. Some of that conversation follows, below:

TC: You’re trying to educate trade workers and those aspiring to work in construction — an industry that’s in the midst of a years-long labor shortage and needs people with know-how. Do you envision awarding credentials so employers know your customers have gone through training?

GJ: That’s on the table — proof of aptitude or certificates of completion after you’ve successfully passed an assessment. On the licensing side, that would be complicated because [general contractor] licenses are offered regionally, and you need to be a licensed electrical contractor so you don’t burn someone’s house down, and that’s a four-year process typically. So we’re right now focused more on general education and support rather than [anything more tangible than that].

TC: Out of curiosity, how would you test users, given this is a one-to-many platform?

GJ: Some of it could involve testing construction math — putting you through an assessment to ensure you know how to calculate angles and area and so forth. Other tests cold be more around general knowledge. We can’t, with an online test, ensure that you’ll build a great cabinet, but it’s easy to imagine [other testing] opportunities.

TC: MasterClass relies on celebrities and stars in their respective fields. To generate more buzz, might you pull in celebrity homebuilders and tradespeople from do-it-yourself-type shows as teachers?

GJ: We’re talking about that, too. There’s a healthy online community of professional builders who share what they do and they’ve given us a warm welcome. What’s most important to us is ensuring that the quality of instruction is really high really.

TC: I spent part of yesterday watching videos about how to dismantle a brick wall; it makes me wonder whether there will be content on your platform that’s accessible to, and even targeting, homeowners.

GJ: We are hopefully going to see a DIY halo audience for this stuff. For example, deck building is an employable skill and one that we’ll teach you such that you can learn to do it as a professional would. At the same time, if you’re serious about building your own deck, who else would you rather learn it from than pros who know how to teach it?

We’re also thinking of ways to bring those audiences together. You could learn how to dismantle that wall, but you could also come to Copeland to find a professional remodeler who you come to see as a trusted resource.

TC: How long does it take to create each piece of programming for the site?

GJ: It takes us a couple of months to put the courses together, which mostly fall right now between an hour and two hours, though well see more variability in that down the road.

TC: Do you have partnerships with homebuilders or commercial real estate developers that are desperate right now for help?

GJ: We are establishing partnerships with real estate builders. A few are [coming together now] and we’re really excited about the growing that side of the business as we develop and film more stuff and add to our current library.

TC: Will subscriptions be part of the picture as you build out that content?

GJ: Yes, right now we charge $75 per course, and you have access to it forever, or a business can purchase a number or seats. As we grow the library, though, you’ll see see flexibility regarding the pricing structure.

TC: What type of content is coming?

GJ: Right now, we’re really focused on residential construction, both hands-on trade skills, like carpentry and cabinet making, but also blueprint reading, and we’ll continue to grow that by adding in plumbing, and drywall and general contractor skills, like reading contracts and risk management. But we’re also building a commercial construction management library that’s taught by university professors largely centered around skills between the field and the office. Maybe you’re an experienced craftsman and you need to learn skills like estimating or leadership, or you come to construction from retail and you’re working in an office capacity and need to learn how to connect the dots.

Rebranded Toyota Ventures invests $300 million in emerging tech and carbon neutrality 

By Rebecca Bellan

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, has dropped the “AI” and is reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The fund is commemorating its new identity by investing an additional $300 million in emerging technologies and carbon neutrality via two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. 

The introduction of these two new funds, each worth $150 million, brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million. With the new capital infusion into the Frontier Fund comes an expansion of Toyota Ventures’ core thesis, which previously focused on AI, autonomy, mobility, robotics and the cloud, and now is adding smart cities, digital health, fintech and energy. So while Toyota Ventures’ investment approach isn’t changing, it’s broadening the scope of startups it will consider investing in. 

“AI is kind of shrinking as a proportion of everything,” Jim Adler, founding managing director of Toyota Ventures, told TechCrunch. “The first mission of the Frontier Fund has always been to discover what’s next for Toyota. Toyota pivoted to cars in the 1930s, and Toyota will grow to other businesses in the future. Startups are experiments in the marketplace, and this is a way for us to understand and get comfortable with where innovations are coming from.” 

Toyota as a global company has more than 370,000 employees that cover a range of business units in which the company at large stands to benefit from investing, such as financial technology. The Frontier Fund is a step outside of mobility. It not only seeks to bring emerging tech to market, but it also wants to bring new innovations onboard, whether as a customer or an acquisition, according to Adler. 

“I think the vision of the company really is that machines are here to stay, they amplify the human experience, and Toyota understands how machines amplify humans really well for the benefit of society, which sounds incredibly corny, but the company really believes that,” said Adler.

By that same token, the new Climate Fund seeks to invest in startups that can help Toyota accelerate its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The company has been investing in hydrogen for years, including a recent partnership with Japanese fuel company ENEOS, but it’s open to whatever technology will help achieve carbon neutrality, according to Adler.

“We think renewable energies will play a role,” said Adler. “Hydrogen production, storage distribution and utilization will play a role. We think carbon capture and storage will play a role. We’re not going to get dogmatic about hydrogen because we’ve been at it for decades and maybe things will change. Hydrogen hasn’t been crowdsourced across the startup community because there just wasn’t a market for it, but I think the market may be emerging.”

The fund is accepting online pitches on its website from entrepreneurs seeking early-stage funding. On Thursday, Toyota Ventures also announced it would be expanding its team and working with a new Advisor Network as a resource for founders looking for guidance on anything from product development to diversity and recruitment. 

“Toyota Ventures has been an invaluable partner for Boxbot since they invested in our seed round in 2018,” said Austin Oehlerking, co-founder and CEO of Boxbot, in a statement. “They have been instrumental in helping us to navigate complicated, existential challenges on our journey from concept to product/market fit. Jim and the team really understand how corporate venture capital should function in order to successfully partner with startups.” 

Adler says he and his team come from an entrepreneurial background, so they understand what it’s like on the other side of the table. Toyota Ventures’ focuses on early-stage startups because that’s where it believes some of the most interesting innovations come from. 

“I’m a big believer that early-stage venture capital is a telescope into the future,” said Adler. “I think we can actually find those incredibly valuable innovations that make this all worthwhile.”

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