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Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?

“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.

“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder of Duolingo, visiting President Obama in 2015. Image Credits: Duolingo

While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.

That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.

With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.

In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.

Duolingo’s office decor. Image Credits: Duolingo

“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.

Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. “If you want to be fluent, Duolingo needs innovation,” Niesner said. “And that’s where we come in: We all believe that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision.” Busuu has more than 90 million users worldwide.

Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.

Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Putting the ed back into edtech

One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.

The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a warm-but-scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.

How UK-based Lendable is powering fintechs across emerging markets

By Tage Kene-Okafor

What moves the needle for digital lenders is serving loans to their respective customers. But where does this money come from? The pool is usually equity or debt. While some lenders use the former, it can be seen as folly because, over time, the founders tend to lose ownership of their businesses after giving out too much equity to raise capital for loans. Hence the reason why most lending companies secure debt facilities. 

TechCrunch has recently reported on two prominent digital lenders (also digital banks in their own rights) gaining steam in Africa — Carbon and FairMoney. In 2019, Carbon secured $5 million in debt financing and the following year, FairMoney did the same but raised a higher sum, $13 million.

Enter Lendable, the UK-based firm responsible for supplying both lenders with debt finance.

The company with offices in Nairobi, New York, and Singapore advances loans to fintechs across eight markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Since launching in 2014, the company has disbursed over $125 million to these fintechs — SME lenders, payment platforms, asset lenders, marketplaces, and consumer lenders.

In a phone conversation with TechCrunch, Samuel Eyob, a principal at the firm, said the company is raising almost $180 million to continue its investment efforts across the three continents.

“We want to raise more than $180 million and we have investors that have committed cash to us,” he said. “Right now, we’re already investing out of that amount because we’ve already closed on a bunch of it. Ideally, the goal is to invest that amount over this year.”

Lendable was founded by Daniel Goldfarb and Dylan Friend. It was based on an insight that they had while Daniel was a partner at Greenstart, a venture capital firm focused on data, finance and energy. That insight was that the poorest people in the world pay the most for goods and services, so if capital markets could provide a path to ownership, that could help individuals build assets. So the pair set out to solve this by providing capital to fintechs catering to the needs of these people.

Eyob, a first-generation American from Ethiopia, knows what a lack of access to fair finance does to people and countries. Given the millions of people and businesses not effectively served by banks and MFIs, Eyob joined the team to drive financial inclusion in these markets

“Over a billion people still lack access to financial services and multiple reports indicate that the financing gap for micro and small businesses is trillions of dollars and growing. We believe this is a massive opportunity. So, whilst we started in Africa, the lack of access to fair financing solutions is a problem across all emerging markets, which we want to address,” he said.

Samuel Eyob

Samuel Eyob (Principal, Lendable)

So in 2014, Lendable started as a SaaS platform to democratize access to African capital markets by providing risk and analytics software. “We hoped to do this by bringing the securitization market from the Global North into Africa,” Eyob added

The company built an analytics platform to analyze loans and used machine learning to predict loan portfolio cashflows. In addition to that, they created an automated investment platform helping ventures to raise nondilutive (not equity) capital to help scale their businesses.

After sufficiently proving out its tech, the firm made a pivot. According to Eyob, the previous model wasn’t experiencing enough growth and was incurring unsustainable costs. So the company began raising capital based on its own analytics in 2016. It had only raised $600,000 and was focused on East African startups with SME financing and Pay-Go solar home models. That number has since increased to over $125 million across Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America.

So why do these companies actually need debt financing? Here’s a clearer picture of the instance used at the beginning of this piece.

Imagine a VC-backed startup whose ultimate goal is to help scale up female-founded SMEs with one-year loans. The startup could easily use its equity to provide the capital for all the one-year loans. The payoff from the loans, after one year, would be the interest due to them. Or, it could put that capital into hiring developers, build a go-to-market strategy, hire a CTO, all of which would likely have payoffs that are up to a 100x multiple of the interest they would have made on the single SME loan that is tied up for an entire year.

So ultimately, debt would be an ideal source of nondilutive capital for the startup as they wouldn’t have to tie up equity for one year. Therefore, debt would be a much cheaper source of capital to scale up their operations, especially if it has scaled up to having tens of thousands of one-year loans. If it were equity, they would have to raise an endless amount with constant dilution as they scale.

In its five years of official operations, Lendable has given debt facilities to more than 20 startups. While the stage at which Lendable gives money differs, it is particular about startups that are post Series A. 

Apart from Carbon and FairMoney, some startups to have raised debt from Lendable include Tugende, Uploan, KoinWorks, Planet42, TerraPay, Watu Credit, Trella, Amartha, Payjoy, Solar Panda, Cars45 and MFS Africa. Collectively, Eyob said, Lendable has reached 1.2 million end borrowers through its partners and helped finance up to 290,000 SMEs.

Of the $125 million disbursed so far as debt, Eyob said the company has a default rate of about 0.01%. The reason behind this low number, Eyob reckons, is because Lendable ensures to be in constant conversation with the companies offering help, advice or connections when necessary.

“We view lending as a partnership and typically when both parties act in good faith, there are ways to solve problems,” Eyob said

The debt facilities start at $2 million but can go up to over $15 million, Eyob said. But while the global standard at which lenders pay back their debt investments is typically 4 to 6 years, Lendable expects the companies it gives cash to do so in 3 to 4 years

Eyob pushes that founders in emerging markets should be willing to take more debt financing to scale their startups. These days, startups tend to be high on giving out equity instead of weighing options on effectively using debt in critical points when scaling.

Equity could be used to help attract the best talent or expand into new markets. Still, debt proves essential when scaling up capital-intensive operations like working capital or pre-funding activities. More often than not, debt and equity are complementary to one another, and Lendable is hoping to use the new funds it’s raising to push that notion

I think, just like everywhere else in the world, debt and equity are tools that should be used to support one another, supporting the venture’s ultimate mission. We have lasting relationships with multiple VC teams across emerging markets that we work with to ultimately support one another’s partner investees.”

 

The second shot is kicking in

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

First and foremost, Equity was nominated for a Webby for “Best Technology Podcast”! Drop everything and go Vote for Equity! We’d appreciate it. A lot. And even if we lose, well, we’ll keep doing our thing and making each other laugh. (Note: We are in last place, which is, well, something.)

Regardless, the Equity team got together once again this week to not only go over the news of the week, but also to do a little soul searching. You see, some news broke yesterday, so we figured that we had to talk about it in our usual style. So, here’s the rundown:

  • Do you want to buy TechCrunch? Apparently you can? Albeit probably along with a few billion dollars’ worth of other assets — whatever is left of Yahoo and AOL — you can now own an NFT. A non-fungible TechCrunch. What is ahead for us? We don’t know. So if you do know, tell us. Until then we’ll just yo-yo gently between panic and optimism, as per usual.
  • We also dug into the latest All Raise venture capital data, and the results were abysmal. 
  • Next up was the news that fintech startups are setting records in 2021, raising more capital than ever before. That brought us to the latest from Brex.
  • And then there was a suspicious trend when three fintech companies focused on teen banking raised in one exhale. We talk Step, Greenlight and Current.
  • Natasha talked about her last Startups Weekly post, in which she unpacked The MasterClass effect’s impact on edtech.
  • And to close, we discussed the latest cool-kid venture capital funds. Sure memes are cool, but did you know that they can help you raise a $10 million fund? They can!

We are back Monday morning with our weekly kick-off show. Have a great weekend!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

The health data transparency movement is birthing a new generation of startups

By Annie Siebert
Ariel Katz Contributor
Ariel Katz is the founder and CEO of H1, a global healthcare platform that helps life sciences companies, hospitals, academic medical centers and health systems connect with providers, find clinical research, locate industry experts and benchmark their organization.

In the early 2000s, Jeff Bezos gave a seminal TED Talk titled “The Electricity Metaphor for the Web’s Future.” In it, he argued that the internet will enable innovation on the same scale that electricity did.

We are at a similar inflection point in healthcare, with the recent movement toward data transparency birthing a new generation of innovation and startups.

Those who follow the space closely may have noticed that there are twin struggles taking place: a push for more transparency on provider and payer data, including anonymous patient data, and another for strict privacy protection for personal patient data. What’s the main difference?

This sector is still somewhat nascent — we are in the first wave of innovation, with much more to come.

Anonymized data is much more freely available, while personal data is being locked even tighter (as it should be) due to regulations like GDPR, CCPA and their equivalents around the world.

The former trend is enabling a host of new vendors and services that will ultimately make healthcare better and more transparent for all of us.

These new companies could not have existed five years ago. The Affordable Care Act was the first step toward making anonymized data more available. It required healthcare institutions (such as hospitals and healthcare systems) to publish data on costs and outcomes. This included the release of detailed data on providers.

Later legislation required biotech and pharma companies to disclose monies paid to research partners. And every physician in the U.S. is now required to be in the National Practitioner Identifier (NPI), a comprehensive public database of providers.

All of this allowed the creation of new types of companies that give both patients and providers more control over their data. Here are some key examples of how.

Allowing patients to access all their own health data in one place

This is a key capability of patients’ newly found access to health data. Think of how often, as a patient, providers aren’t aware of treatment or a test you’ve had elsewhere. Often you end up repeating a test because a provider doesn’t have a record of a test conducted elsewhere.

As concerns rise over forest carbon offsets, Pachama’s verified offset marketplace gets $15 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Restoring and preserving the world’s forests has long been considered one of the easiest, lowest cost, and simplest ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

It’s by far the most popular method for corporations looking to take an easy first step on the long road to decarbonizing or offsetting their industrial operations. But in recent months the efficacy, validity, and reliability of a number of forest offsets have been called into question thanks to some blockbuster reporting from Bloomberg.

It’s against this uncertain backdrop that investors are coming in to shore up financing for Pachama, a company building a marketplace for forest carbon credits that it says is more transparent and verifiable thanks to its use of satellite imagery and machine learning technologies.

That pitch has brought in $15 million in new financing for the company, which co-founder and chief executive Diego Saez Gil said would be used for product development and the continued expansion of the company’s marketplace.

Launched only one year ago, Pachama has managed to land some impressive customers and backers. No less an authority on things environmental than Jeff Bezos (given how much of a negative impact Amazon operations have on the planet), gave the company a shoutout in his last letter to shareholders as Amazon’s outgoing chief executive. And the largest ecommerce company in Latin America, Mercado Libre, tapped the company to manage an $8 million offset project that’s part of a broader commitment to sustainability by the retailing giant.

Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund is an investor in the latest round, which was led by Bill Gates’ investment firm Breakthrough Energy Ventures. Other investors included Lowercarbon Capital (the climate-focused fund from über-successful angel investor, Chris Sacca), former Über executive Ryan Graves’ Saltwater, the MCJ Collective, and new backers like Tim O’Reilly’s OATV, Ram Fhiram, Joe gebbia, Marcos Galperin, NBA All-star Manu Ginobilli, James Beshara, Fabrice Grinda, Sahil Lavignia, and Tomi Pierucci.

That’s not even the full list of the company’s backers. What’s made Pachama so successful, and given the company the ability to attract top talent from companies like Google, Facebook, SapceX, Tesla, OpenAI, Microsoft, Impossible Foods and Orbital Insights, is the combination of its climate mission applied to the well-understood forest offset market, said Saez Gil.

“Restoring nature is one of the most important solutions to climate change. Forests, oceans and other ecosystems not only sequester enormous amounts of CO2from the atmosphere, but they also provide critical habitat for biodiversity and are sources of livelihood for communities worldwide. We are building the technology stack required to be able to drive funding to the restoration and conservation of these ecosystems with integrity, transparency and efficiency” said Diego Saez Gil, Co-founder and CEO at Pachama. “We feel honored and excited to have the support of such an incredible group of investors who believe in our mission and are demonstrating their willingness to support our growth for the long term”. 

Customers outside of Latin America are also clamoring for access to Pachama’s offset marketplace. Microsoft, Shopify, and Softbank are also among the company’s paying buyers.

It’s another reason that investors like Y Combinator, Social Capital, Tobi Lutke, Serena Williams, Aglaé Ventures (LVMH’s tech investment arm), Paul Graham, AirAngels, Global Founders, ThirdKind Ventures, Sweet Capital, Xplorer Capital, Scott Belsky, Tim Schumacher, Gustaf Alstromer, Facundo Garreton, and Terrence Rohan, were able to commit to backing the company’s nearly $24 million haul since its 2020 launch. 

“Pachama is working on unlocking the full potential of nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” said Carmichael Roberts from BEV, in a statement. “Their technology-based approach will have an enormous multiplier effect by using machine learning models for forest analysis to validate, monitor and measure impactful carbon neutrality initiatives. We are impressed by the progress that the team has made in a short period of time and look forward to working with them to scale their unique solution globally.” 

 

Healthcare is the next wave of data liberation

By Annie Siebert
David Jegen Contributor
David Jegen is a managing partner of F-Prime Capital’s Technology Fund and co-founder of FinTech Sandbox.
Carl Byers Contributor
Carl Byers is a Partner at F-Prime Capital. He teaches finance at Harvard University and was previously the CFO of Athenahealth from its founding through IPO.

Why can we see all our bank, credit card and brokerage data on our phones instantaneously in one app, yet walk into a doctor’s office blind to our healthcare records, diagnoses and prescriptions? Our health status should be as accessible as our checking account balance.

The liberation of financial data enabled by startups like Plaid is beginning to happen with healthcare data, which will have an even more profound impact on society; it will save and extend lives. This accessibility is quickly approaching.

As early investors in Quovo and PatientPing, two pioneering companies in financial and healthcare data, respectively, it’s evident to us the winners of the healthcare data transformation will look different than they did with financial data, even as we head toward a similar end state.

For over a decade, government agencies and consumers have pushed for this liberation.

In 2009, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH) gave the first big industry push, catalyzing a wave of digitization through electronic health records (EHR). Today, over 98% of medical records are digitized. This market is dominated by multi‐billion‐dollar vendors like Epic, Cerner and Allscripts, which control 70% of patient records. However, these giant vendors have yet to make these records easily accessible.

A second wave of regulation has begun to address the problem of trapped data to make EHRs more interoperable and valuable. Agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services have mandated data sharing among payers and providers using a common standard, the Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR) protocol.

Image Credits: F-Prime Capital

This push for greater data liquidity coincides with demand from consumers for better information about cost and quality. Employers have been steadily shifting a greater share of healthcare expenses to consumers through high-deductible health plans – from 30% in 2012 to 51% in 2018. As consumers pay for more of the costs, they care more about the value of different health options, yet are unable to make those decisions without real-time access to cost and clinical data.

Image Credits: F-Prime Capital

Tech startups have an opportunity to ease the transmission of healthcare data and address the push of regulation and consumer demands. The lessons from fintech make it tempting to assume that a Plaid for healthcare data would be enough to address all of the challenges within healthcare, but it is not the right model. Plaid’s aggregator model benefited from a relatively high concentration of banks, a limited number of data types and low barriers to data access.

By contrast, healthcare data is scattered across tens of thousands of healthcare providers, stored in multiple data formats and systems per provider, and is rarely accessed by patients directly. Many people log into their bank apps frequently, but few log into their healthcare provider portals, if they even know one exists.

HIPPA regulations and strict patient consent requirements also meaningfully increase friction to data access and sharing. Financial data serves mostly one-to-one use cases, while healthcare data is a many-to-many problem. A single patient’s data is spread across many doctors and facilities and is needed by just as many for care coordination.

Because of this landscape, winning healthcare technology companies will need to build around four propositions:

The gig is up on 21st-century exploitation

By Annie Siebert
Rebecca Dixon Contributor
Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

Today’s app-based or “gig” economy is frequently dressed up in talk about “modern innovation” and the “21st century of work.” This facade is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Precarious, contingent work is nothing new — we’ve always had jobs that are low-paying, insecure and dismissed as “unskilled.” Due to systemic racism and a historically exploitative economy, workers of color have always been, and continue to be, heavily concentrated in the most exploitative industries.

The only difference is that today, companies like Uber, DoorDash and Instacart claim they don’t have to play by the rules because they use digital apps to manage their workforce. Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.

Even as many of these tech giants remain unprofitable, they have been allowed for far too long to shirk responsibility for providing safe and just working conditions where workers can thrive on and off the job.

Workers’ rights in the so-called gig economy are often positioned as a modern problem. But when we think about the problems faced by gig and app-based workers, who are predominantly people of color, we must learn from the past in order to move forward to a just economy.

The federal government has long failed to address widespread worker exploitation. Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, jobs like agricultural and domestic work, which were largely performed by workers of color, were carved out of labor rights and protections. The “independent contractors” of today, who are largely workers of color, fall into this same category of workers who have been excluded from labor laws. Combined, Black and Latinx workers make up less than 29% of the nation’s total workforce, but they comprise almost 42% of workers for app-based companies.

Gig companies argue that the drivers, delivery people, independent contractors and other workers who build their businesses, take direction from them and whose pay they set are millions of tiny businesses that do not need baseline benefits and protections. They do this in order to shield themselves from taking responsibility for their frontline workforce. Corporations then avoid paying basic costs like a minimum wage, healthcare, paid sick leave, compensation coverage and a litany of other essential benefits for their employees. For many workers, these conditions only serve to proliferate inequality nationwide and ultimately uphold a deeply flawed economy built upon worker exploitation and suffering.

App-based companies are the face of a larger, sinister trend. Over the last four decades, federal policies have greatly eroded the bargaining power of workers and concentrated more power in the hands of corporations and those who already have substantial wealth and power. This has perpetuated and worsened the racial wage and wealth gaps and contributed to the ever-increasing degradation of working conditions for too many.

It’s clear that, in order to build an economy that works for all people, “gig” and app-based companies cannot be allowed to exploit their workers under the guise of “innovation.” These companies claim their workers want to remain independent contractors, but what workers want is good pay, job security, flexibility and full rights under federal laws. This is a reasonable and just demand — and necessary to close generational gender and racial wealth gaps.

App-based companies are pouring significant resources into promoting government policies that prop up their worker exploitation model. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash Instacart and other app-based companies are loudly peddling misinformation in state legislatures, city councils and federal offices. Elected leaders at all levels need to recognize these policies for what they are — corporate efforts to rewrite the laws to benefit them — and reject the corporate interests behind the policies that carve out workers from universal protections.

Congress must also reject exclusions that lock people of color out of basic employment protections and pass legislation to extend protections to all workers, including app-based workers. The PRO Act is a great first step, which extends bargaining protections to workers who have been wrongly classified as “independent contractors” by their employers.

Across the country, app-based workers have organized to protect their health and safety and demand that their rights as workers be recognized and protected. Elected leaders cannot keep falling for corporate propaganda claiming a “21st-century” model. Work in the 21st century is still work; work that is organized on an app is still work.

We call on Congress to recognize the labor rights and protections of all workers and act boldly to ensure that app-based companies cannot block workers from equal rights in the name of “flexibility” and “innovation.”

RapidDeploy raises $29M for a cloud-based dispatch platform aimed at 911 centers

By Ingrid Lunden

The last year of pandemic living has been real-world, and sometimes harrowing, proof of how important it can be to have efficient and well-equipped emergency response services in place. They can help people remotely if need be, and when they cannot, they make sure that in-person help can be dispatched quickly in medical and other situations. Today, a company that’s building cloud-based tools to help with this process is announcing a round of funding as it continues to grow.

RapidDeploy, which provides computer-aided dispatch technology as a cloud-based service for 911 centers, has closed a round of $29 million, a Series B round of funding that will be used both to grow its business, and to continue expanding the SaaS tools that it provides to its customers. In the startup’s point of view, the cloud is essential to running emergency response in the most efficient manner.

“911 response would have been called out on a walkie talkie in the early days,” said Steve Raucher, the co-founder and CEO of RapidDeploy, in an interview. “Now the cloud has become the nexus of signals.”

Washington, DC-based RapidDeploy provides data and analytics to 911 centers — the critical link between people calling for help and connecting those calls with the nearest medical, police or fire assistance — and today it has about 700 customers using its RadiusPlus, Eclipse Analytics and Nimbus CAD products.

That works out to about 10% of all 911 centers in the US (7,000 in total), and covering 35% of the population (there are more centers in cities and other dense areas). Its footprint includes state coverage in Arizona, California, and Kansas. It also has operations in South Africa, where it was originally founded.

The funding is coming from an interesting mix of financial and strategic investors. Led by Morpheus Ventures, the round also had participation from GreatPoint Ventures, Ericsson Ventures, Samsung Next Ventures, Tao Capital Partners, Tau Ventures, among others. It looks like the company had raised about $30 million before this latest round, according to PitchBook data. Valuation is not being disclosed.

Ericsson and Samsung, as major players in the communication industry, have a big stake in seeing through what will be the next generation of communications technology and how it is used for critical services. (And indeed, one of the big leaders in legacy and current 911 communications is Motorola, a would-be competitor of both.) AT&T is also a strategic go-to-market (distribution and sales) partner of RapidDeploy’s, and it also has integrations with Apple, Google, Microsoft, and OnStar to feed data into its system.

The business of emergency response technology is a fragmented market. Raucher describes them as “mom-and-pop” businesses, with some 80% of them occupying four seats or less (a testament to the fact that a lot of the US is actually significantly less urban than its outsized cities might have you think it is), and in many cases a lot of these are operating on legacy equipment.

However, in the US in the last several years — buffered by innovations like the Jedi project and FirstNet, a next-generation public safety network — things have been shifting. RapidDeploy’s technology sits alongside (and in some areas competes with) companies like Carbyne and RapidSOS, which have been tapping into the innovations of cell phone technology both to help pinpoint people and improve how to help them.

RapidDeploy’s tech is based around its RadiusPlus mapping platform, which uses data from smart phones, vehicles, home security systems and other connected devices and channels it to its data stream, which can help a center determine not just location but potentially other aspects of the condition of the caller. Its Eclipse Analytics services, meanwhile, are meant to act as a kind of assistant to those centers to help triage situations and provide insights into how to respond. The Nimbus CAD then helps figure out who to call out and routing for response. 

Longer term, the plan will be to leverage cloud architecture to bring in new data sources and ways of communicating between callers, centers and emergency care providers.

“It’s about being more of a triage service rather than a message switch,” Raucher said. “As we see it, the platform will evolve with customers’ needs. Tactical mapping ultimately is not big enough to cover this. We’re thinking about unified communications.” Indeed, that is the direction that many of these services seem to be going, which can only be a good thing for us consumers.

“The future of emergency services is in data, which creates a faster, more responsive 9-1-1 center,” said Mark Dyne, Founding Partner at Morpheus Ventures, in a statement. “We believe that the platform RapidDeploy has built provides the necessary breadth of capabilities that make the dream of Next-Gen 9-1-1 service a reality for rural and metropolitan communities across the nation and are excited to be investing in this future with Steve and his team.” Dyne has joined the RapidDeploy board with this round.

Boasting a pedigree in business intelligence, Sweep launches a new carbon accounting and offset tool

By Jonathan Shieber

If businesses are going to meet their increasingly aggressive targets for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with their operations, they’re going to have to have an accurate picture of just what those emissions look like. To get that picture, companies are increasingly turning to businesses like Sweep, which announced its commercial launch today.

The Parisian company boasts a founding team with an impeccable pedigree in enterprise software. Co-founders Rachel Delacour and Nicolas Raspal were the co-founders of BIME Analytics, which was acquired by Zendesk. And together with Zendesk colleagues Raphael Güller and Yannick Chaze, and the founder of the Net Zero Initiative, Renaud Bettin, they’ve created a software toolkit that gives companies a visually elegant view into not just a company’s own carbon emissions, but those of their suppliers as well.

It’s the background of the team that first attracted investors like Pia d’Iribarne, co-founder and managing partner, New Wave, which made their first climate-focused investment into the software developer. 

We decided to invest before we even closed the fund,” d’Iribarne said of the investment in Sweep. “We officially invested in December or January.”

New Wave wasn’t the only investor wowed by the company’s prospects. The new European climate-focused investment firm 2050, and La Famiglia, a fund with strong ties to big European industrial companies, also participated alongside several undisclosed angel investors from the Bay Area. In all Sweep raked in $5 million for its product before it had even launched a beta.

Sweep offers users the ability to visualize each location of a company’s business by brand, location, product or division and see how those different granular operations contribute to a company’s overall carbon footprint. Users can also link those nodes to external suppliers and distributors to share carbon data. 

The effects of climate change are increasing, and companies across industries are motivated to do their part. But today’s carbon reduction efforts are being stalled by complex tools and resources that can’t match the urgency of the threat. By putting automation, connectivity and collaboration at the heart of the platform, Sweep is the first to offer companies an efficient mechanism to tackle their indirect Scope 3 emissions, and turn net zero from a buzzword into a reality. 

Like the other companies that have come on the market with carbon monitoring and management solutions, Sweep also offers the ability to finance offset projects directly from its platform. And, like those other companies, Sweep’s offsets are primarily in the forestry space.   

“Around the world, companies are under pressure from customers, investors and regulators to take action to reduce their emissions,” said Pia d’Iribarne in a statement. “As a result, we’re seeing unprecedented growth in the climate technology market and we expect it to continue to explode. What used to be an issue confined to a company’s sustainability team is now a front-and-center business objective that has the commitment of the CEO. We invested in Sweep because of their world-class expertise in sustainability and their success in developing state-of-the-art, end-to-end SaaS platforms. It’s the right team and the right product at the right time.”

Lobus raises $6 million for an art management platform on the blockchain

By Lucas Matney

Reshaping ownership proofs in the fine art markets has been one of the blockchain’s clearest real-world use cases. But in recent months as top auction houses have embraced NFTs and popular artists experiment with the crypto medium, that future has seemed more tangible than ever before.

The ex-Christie’s and Sotheby’s team at Lobus is aiming to commoditize blockchain tech with an asset management platform that they hope can bring creator-friendly mechanisms from NFT marketplaces like SuperRare to the physical art world as well, allowing art owners to maintain partial ownership of the works they sell so that they can benefit from secondary transactions down the line. While physical art sellers have grown accustomed to selling 100% of their work while seeing that value accrue over time as it trades hands, Lobus’s goal is for artist’s to maintain fractional ownership throughout those sales, ensuring that they earn a commission on sales down the road. It’s a radical idea and a logistical nightmare made feasible by the blockchain’s approach to ownership.

“We’re really on a mission of making artists into owners,” Lobus co-CEO Sarah Wendell Sherrill tells TechCrunch. “We are really leveraging the best of what NFTs are putting out there about ownership and asking the questions of how to help create different ownership structures and interrupt this asset class.”

The startup is encapsulating these new mechanics in a wide-reaching art asset management platform that they hope can entice users of the aging legacy software suites being used today. Teaming robust ownership proofs with a CRM, analytics platform and tools like dynamic pricing, Lobus wants to give the art market its own Carta-like software platform that is approachable to the wider market.

Lobus tells TechCrunch they have raised $6 million from Upside Capital, 8VC, Franklin Templeton, Dream Machine, Weekend Fund and BoostVC, among others. Angels participating in the round include Rob Hayes, Troy Carter, Suzy Ryoo, Rebecca and Cal Henderson, Henry Ward and Lex Sokolin.

A big goal for the team has been removing the complexities of understanding what the blockchain is and instead focusing on what their tech can deliver to their network of art owners. While the NFT boom of the past few months has already produced billions in sales, efforts like Lobus are attempting to cross-pollinate the mechanics of crypto art with the global art market in an effort to put stakeholders across the board on the same footing. In addition to having partnerships with around 300 active artists, Lobus has also sold their platform to collectors, artist estates and asset managers.

At the moment, Lobus has around 45,000 art objects in its database, encompassing about $5.4 billion in asset value across physical and digital objects.

Kry closes $312M Series D after use of its telehealth tools grows 100% yoy

By Natasha Lomas

Swedish digital health startup Kry, which offers a telehealth service (and software tools) to connect clinicians with patients for remote consultations, last raised just before the pandemic hit in Western Europe, netting a €140M Series C in January 2020.

Today it’s announcing an oversubscribed sequel: The Series D raise clocks in at $312M (€262M) and will be used to keep stepping on the growth gas in the region.

Investors in this latest round for the 2015-founded startup are a mix of old and new backers: The Series D is led by CPP Investments (aka, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board) and Fidelity Management & Research LLC, with participation from existing investors including The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, as well as European-based VC firms Index Ventures, Accel, Creandum and Project A.

The need for people to socially distance during the coronavirus pandemic has given obvious uplift to the telehealth category, accelerating the rate of adoption of digital health tools that enable remote consultations by both patients and clinicians. Kry quickly stepped in to offer a free service for doctors to conduct web-based consultations last year, saying at the time that it felt a huge responsibility to help.

That agility in a time of public health crisis has clearly paid off. Kry’s year-over-year growth in 2020 was 100% — meaning that the ~1.6M digital doctors appointments it had served up a year ago now exceed 3M. Some 6,000 clinicians are also now using its telehealth platform and software tools. (It doesn’t break out registered patient numbers).

Yet co-founder and CEO, Johannes Schildt, says that, in some ways, it’s been a rather quiet 12 months for healthcare demand.

Sure the pandemic has driven specific demand, related to COVID-19 — including around testing for the disease (a service Kry offers in some of its markets) — but he says national lockdowns and coronavirus concerns have also dampened some of the usual demand for healthcare. So he’s confident that the 100% growth rate Kry has seen amid the COVID-19 public health crisis is just a taster of what’s to come — as healthcare provision shifts toward more digital delivery.

“Obviously we have been on the right side of a global pandemic. And if you look back the mega trend was obviously there long before the pandemic but the pandemic has accelerated the trend and it has served us and the industry well in terms of anchoring what we do. It’s now very well anchored across the globe — that telemedicine and digital healthcare is a crucial part of the healthcare systems moving forward,” Schildt tells TechCrunch.

“Demand has been increasing during the year, most obviously, but if you look at the broader picture of healthcare delivery — in most European markets — you actually have healthcare usage at an all time low. Because a lot of people are not as sick anymore given that you have tight restrictions. So it’s this rather strange dynamic. If you look at healthcare usage in general it’s actually at an all time low. But telemedicine is on an upward trend and we are operating on higher volumes… than we did before. And that is great, and we have been hiring a lot of great clinicians and been shipping a lot of great tools for clinicians to make the shift to digital.”

The free version of Kry’s tools for clinicians generated “big uplift” for the business, per Schildt, but he’s more excited about the wider service delivery shifts that are happening as the pandemic has accelerated uptake of digital health tools.

“For me the biggest thing has been that [telemedicine is] now very well established, it’s well anchored… There is still a different level of maturity between different European markets. Even [at the time of Kry’s Series C round last year] telemedicine was maybe not something that was a given — for us it’s always been of course; for me it’s always been crystal clear that this is the way of the future; it’s a necessity, you need to shift a lot of the healthcare delivery to digital. We just need to get there.”

The shift to digital is a necessary one, Schildt argues, in order to widen access to (inevitably) limited healthcare resources vs ever growing demand (current pandemic lockdown dampeners excepted). This is why Kry’s focus has always been on solving inefficiencies in healthcare delivery.

It seeks to do that in a variety of ways — including by offering support tools for clinicians working in public healthcare systems (for example, more than 60% of all the GPs in the UK market, where most healthcare is delivered via the taxpayer-funded NHS, is using Kry’s tools, per Schildt); as well as (in a few markets) running a full healthcare service itself where it combines telemedicine with a network of physical clinics where users can go when they need to be examined in person by a clinician. It also has partnerships with private healthcare providers in Europe.

In short, Kry is agnostic about how it helps deliver healthcare. That philosophy extends to the tech side — meaning video consultations are just one component of its telemedicine business which offers remote consultations for a range of medical issues, including infections, skin conditions, stomach problems and psychological disorders. (Obviously not every issue can be treated remotely but at the primary care level there are plenty of doctor-patient visits that don’t need to take place in person.)

Kry’s product roadmap — which is getting an investment boost with this new funding — involves expanding its patient-facing app to offer more digitally delivered treatments, such as Internet Cognitive Based Therapy (ICBT) and mental health self-assessment tools. It also plans to invest in digital healthcare tools to support chronic healthcare conditions — whether by developing more digital treatments itself (either by digitizing existing, proven treatments or coming up with novel approaches), and/or expanding its capabilities via acquisitions and strategic partnerships, according to Schildt.

Over the past five+ years, a growing number of startups have been digitizing proven treatment programs, such as for disorders like insomnia and anxiety, or musculoskeletal and chronic conditions that might otherwise require accessing a physiotherapist in person. Options for partners for Kry to work with on expanding its platform are certainly plentiful — although it’s developed the ICBT programs in house so isn’t afraid to tackle the digital treatment side itself.

“Given that we are in the fourth round of this massive change and transition in healthcare it makes a lot of sense for us to continue to invest in great tools for clinicians to deliver high quality care at great efficiency and deepening the experience from the patient side so we can continue to help even more people,” says Schildt.

“A lot of what we do we do is through video and text but that’s just one part of it. Now we’re investing a lot in our mental health plans and doing ICBT treatment plans. We’re going deeper into chronic treatments. We have great tools for clinicians to deliver high quality care at scale. Both digitally and physically because our platform supports both of it. And we have put a lot of effort during this year to link together our digital healthcare delivery with our physical healthcare delivery that we sometimes run ourselves and we sometimes do in partnerships. So the video itself is just one piece of the puzzle. And for us it’s always been about making sure we saw this from the end consumer’s perspective, from the patient’s perspective.”

“I’m a patient myself and still a lot of what we do is driven by my own frustration on how inefficient the system is structured in some areas,” he adds. “You do have a lot of great clinicians out there but there’s truly a lack of patient focus and in a lot of European markets there’s a clear access problem. And that has always been our starting point — how can we make sure that we solve this in a better way for the patients? And then obviously that involves us both building strong tools and front ends for patients so they can easily access care and manage their health, be pro-active about their health. It also involves us building great tools for clinicians that they can operate and work within — and there we’re putting way more effort as well.

“A lot of clinicians are using our tools to deliver digital care — not only clinicians that we run ourselves but ones we’re partnering with. So we do a lot of it in partnerships. And then also, given that we are a European provider, it involves us partnering with both public and private payers to make sure that the end consumer can actually access care.”

Another batch of startups in the digital healthcare delivery space talk a big game about ‘democratizing’ access to healthcare with the help of AI-fuelled triage or even diagnosis chatbots — with the idea that these tools can replace at least some of the work done by human doctors. The loudest on that front is probably Babylon Health.

Kry, by contrast, has avoided flashy AI hype, even though its tools do frequently incorporate machine learning technology, per Schildt. It also doesn’t offer a diagnosis chatbot. The reason for its different emphasis comes back to the choice of problem to focus on: Inefficiencies in healthcare delivery — with Schildt arguing that decision-making by doctors isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of service pain-points in the sector.

“We’re obviously using what would be considered AI or machine learning tools in all products that we’re building. I think sometimes personally I’m a bit annoyed at companies screaming and shouting about the technology itself and less about what problem you are solving with it,” he tells us. “On the decision-support [front], we don’t have the same sort of chatbot system that some other companies do, no. It’s obviously something that we could build really effortlessly. But I think — for me — it’s always about asking yourself what is the problem that you’re solving for? For the patient. And to be honest I don’t find it very useful.

“In many cases, especially in primary care, you have two categories. You have patients that already know why they need help, because you have a urinary tract infection; you had it before. You have an eye infection. You have a rash —  you know that it’s a rash, you need to see someone, you need to get help. Or you’re worried about your symptoms and you’re not really sure what it is — and you need comfort. And I think we’re not there yet where a chatbot would give you that sort of comfort, if this is something severe or not. You still want to talk to a human being. So I think it’s of limited use.

“Then on the decision side of it — sort of making sure that clinicians are making better decisions — we are obviously doing decision support for our clinicians. But if it’s one thing clinicians are really good at it’s actually making decisions. And if you look into the inefficiencies in healthcare the decision-making process is not the inefficiency. The matching side is an inefficiency side.”

He gives the example of how much the Swedish healthcare system spends on translators (circa €200M) as a “huge inefficiency” that could be reduced simply — by smarter matching of multilingual clinicians to patients.

“Most of our doctors are bilingual but they’re not there at the same time as the patient. So on the matching side you have a lot of inefficiency — and that’s where we have spent time on, for example. How can we sort that, how can we make sure that a patient that is seeking help with us ends up with the right level of care? If that is someone that speaks your native language so you can actually understand each other. Is this something that could be fully treated by a nurse? Or should it be directly to a psychologist?”

“With all technology it’s always about how do we use technology to solve a real problem, it’s less about the technology itself,” he adds.

Another ‘inefficiency’ that can affect healthcare provision in Europe relates to a problematic incentive to try to shrink costs (and, if it’s private healthcare, maximize an insurer’s profits) by making it harder for patients to access primary medical care — whether through complicated claims processes or by offering a bare minimum of information and support to access services (or indeed limiting appointment availability), making patients do the legwork of tracking down a relevant professional for their particular complaint and obtaining a coveted slot to see them.

It’s a maddening dynamic in a sector that should be focused on making as many people as healthy as they possibly can be in order that they avoid as much disease as possible — obviously as that outcome is better for the patients themselves. But also given the costs involved in treating really sick people (medical and societal). A wide range of chronic conditions, from type 2 diabetes to lower back pain, can be particularly costly to treat and yet may be entirely preventable with the right interventions.

Schildt sees a key role for digital healthcare tools to drive a much needed shift toward the kind of preventative healthcare that would be better all round, for both patients and for healthcare costs.

“That annoys me a lot,” he says. “That’s sometimes how healthcare systems are structured because it’s just costly for them to deliver healthcare so they try to make it as hard as possible for people to access healthcare — which is an absurdity and also one of the reasons why you now have increasing costs in healthcare systems in general, it’s exactly that. Because you have a lack of access in the first point of contact, with primary care. And what happens is you do have a spillover effect to secondary care.

“We see that in the data in all European markets. You have people ending up in emergency rooms that should have been treated in primary care but they can’t access primary care because there’s no access — you don’t know how to get in there, it’s long waiting times, it’s just triaged to different levels without getting any help and you have people with urinary tract infections ending up in emergency rooms. It’s super costly… when you have healthcare systems trying to fend people off. That’s not the right way doing it. You have to — and I think we will be able to play a crucial role in that in the coming ten years — push the whole system into being more preventative and proactive and access is a key part of that.

“We want to make it very, very simple for the patients — that they should be able to reach out to us and we will direct you to the right level of care.”

With so much still to do tackling the challenges of healthcare delivery in Europe, Kry isn’t in a hurry to expand its services geographically. Its main markets are Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and the UK, where it operates a healthcare service itself (not necessarily nationwide), though it notes that it offers a video consultation service to 30 regional markets.

“Right now we are very European focused,” says Schildt, when asked whether it has any plans for a U.S. launch. “I would never say that we would never go outside of Europe but for here and now we are extremely focused on Europe, we know those markets very, very well. We know how to manoeuvre in the European systems.

“It’s a very different payer infrastructure in Europe vs the US and then it’s also so that focus is always king and Europe is the mega market. Healthcare is 10% of the GDP in all European markets, we don’t have to go outside of Europe to build a very big business. But for the time being I think it makes a lot of sense for us to stay focused.”

 

Hear about building AVs under Amazon from Zoox CTO Jesse Levinson at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Darrell Etherington

Last year, autonomous driving startup Zoox was acquired by Amazon in a deal worth $1.3 billion. Since then, Zoox has continued to pursue its existing strategy of developing and deploying autonomous passenger vehicles, revealing the design of its long-anticipated robotaxi late in December. From concept to reveal, Zoox spent six years developing its built-for-purpose passenger AV, and the plan is to launch them initially with commercial deployments in Las Vegas and San Francisco following testing. At TC Sessions: Mobility this year on June 9, we’ll have the chance to speak to Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson about the company’s progress toward those goals, and what it’s like for Zoox nearly a year on as an Amazon company.

[Did you know? Early-bird ticket sales end next week! Save $100 before prices go up]

In an interview with TechCrunch from last year, Levinson told us that life under Amazon at the AV company has been essentially business as usual since the acquisition — with greatly expanded access to resources, of course, and potentially with even more autonomy than before, he said, since they’re not beholden to a host of outside investors as they pursue their goals.

Of course, the natural assumption when considering Amazon and its interest in autonomous vehicles is package delivery — which is why it’s so interesting that Zoox is, and has always, prioritized movement of people, not parcels, in its AV development roadmap. Zoox’s debut vehicle has been designed entirely with passenger transportation in mind, though the company’s CEO Aicha Evans has acknowledged in the past that it could definitely work on package delivery in partnership with its new corporate owner in the future.

We’ll hear from Levinson if there are any updates to Zoox’s plan or focus, and what Amazon’s ambitions are for autonomous vehicles in the long term. We’ll also talk about the AV industry overall, and the major shifts its undergone in the years that Zoox has been operating, and what that means for growing and attracting talent. Levinson knows the industry and the state of the art in AV technology better than most, so be sure to grab tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 ASAP and check out our chat on June 9.

Book your early-bird pass today and save $100 before prices increase next week and join today’s leading mobility-startup event.

Netflix won seven Oscars last night

By Anthony Ha

After everything was wrapped up at a very weird Oscars ceremony, original films released by Netflix had won seven statuettes.

The streaming service’s awards include for two for “Mank” (production design and cinematography), two for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (hair/makeup and costume), documentary feature (“My Octopus Teacher”), animated short (“If Anything Happens I Love You”) and live action short (“Two Distant Strangers”).

Meanwhile, Amazon’s “Sound of Metal” won the awards for sound and editing, while Facebook’s Oculus, EA and Respawn won their first Oscar for “Colette,” which won in the documentary short category.

This comes after a pandemic year in which theaters closing or operating at reduced capacity, forcing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay the ceremony and change its awards eligibility rules. It also essentially erased the distinction between theatrical and streaming films — for example, Searchlight Pictures released Best Picture-winner “Nomadland” in theaters and on Hulu at the same time.

Netflix received 36 nominations total, making it the most-nominated studio, with “Mank” the most-nominated film. And seven wins is a big improvement on the two it won last year.

Going into the evening, “Nomadland” was seen as the front runner for Best Picture, but Netflix executives still had reason to be surprised and disappointed: In a nearly unprecedented move, Best Picture wasn’t the final award of the night — instead, it was Best Actor, which was widely expected to go to the late Chadwick Boseman for his performance in “Ma Rainey.” So when Anthony Hopkins (who wasn’t in attendance) won for “The Father,” it made for a pretty deflating end to the evening.

Weav raises $4.3M to knit together a universal API for commerce platforms

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Weav, which is building a universal API for commerce platforms, is emerging from stealth today with $4.3 million in funding from a bevy of investors, and a partnership with Brex.

Founded last year by engineers Ambika Acharya, Avikam Agur and Nadav Lidor after participating in the W20 YC batch, Weav joins the wave of fintech infrastructure companies that aim to give fintechs and financial institutions a boost. Specifically, Weav’s embedded technology is designed to give these organizations access to “real time, user-permissioned” commerce data that they can use to create new financial products for small businesses.  

Its products allow its customers to connect to multiple platforms with a single API that was developed specifically for the commerce platforms that businesses use to sell products and accept payments. Weav operates under the premise that allowing companies to build and embed new financial products creates new opportunities for e-commerce merchants, creators and other entrepreneurs. 

Left to right: Co-founders Ambika Acharya, Nadav Lidor and Avikam Agur; Image courtesy of Weav

In a short amount of time, Weav has seen impressive traction. Recently, Brex launched Instant Payouts for Shopify sellers using the Weav API. It supports platform integrations such as Stripe, Square, Shopify and PayPal. (More on that later.) Since its API went live in January, “thousands” of businesses have used new products and services built on Weav’s infrastructure, according to Lidor. Its API call volume is growing 300% month over month, he said.

And, the startup has attracted the attention of a number of big-name investors, including institutions and the founders of prominent fintech companies. Foundation Capital led its $4.3 million seed round, which also included participation from Y Combinator, Abstract Ventures, Box Group, LocalGlobe, Operator Partners, Commerce Ventures and SV Angel. 

A slew of founders and executives also put money in the round, including Brex founders Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi; Ramp founder Karim Atiyeh; Digits founders Jeff Seibert and Wayne Chang; Hatch founder Thomson Nguyen; GoCardless founder Matt Robinson and COO Carlos Gonzalez-Cadenas; Vouch founder Sam Hodges; Plaid’s Charley Ma as well as executives from fintechs such as Square, Modern Treasury and Pagaya.

Foundation Capital’s Angus Davis said his firm has been investing in fintech infrastructure for over a decade. And personally, before he became a VC, Davis was the founder and CEO of Upserve, a commerce software company. There, he says, he witnessed firsthand “the value of transactional data to enable new types of lending products.”

Foundation has a thesis around the type of embedded fintech that Weav has developed, according to Davis. And it sees a large market opportunity for a new class of financial applications to come to market built atop Weav’s platform.

“We were excited by Weav’s vision of a universal API for commerce platforms,” Davis wrote via email. “Much like Plaid and Envestnet brought universal APIs to banking for consumers, Weav enables a new class of B2B fintech applications for businesses.”

How it works

Weav says that by using its API, companies can prompt their business customers to “securely” connect their accounts with selling platforms, online marketplaces, subscription management systems and payment gateways. Once authenticated, Weav aggregates and standardizes sales, inventory and other account data across platforms and develops insights to power new products across a range of use cases, including lending and underwriting; financial planning and analysis; real-time financial services and business management tools.

For the last few years, there’s been a rise of API companies, as well as openness in the financial system that’s largely been focused on consumers, Lidor points out.

“For example, Plaid brings up very rich data about consumers, but when you think about businesses, oftentimes that data is still locked up in all kinds of systems,” he told TechCrunch. “We’re here to provide some of the building blocks and the access to data from everything that has to do with sales and revenue. And, we’re really excited about powering products that are meant to make the lives of small businesses and e-commerce, sellers and creators much easier and be able to get them access to financial products.”

In the case of Brex, Weav’s API allows the startup to essentially offer instant access to funds that otherwise would take a few days or a few weeks for businesses to access.

“Small businesses need access as quickly as possible to their revenue so that they can fund their operations,” Lidor said.

Brex co-CEO Henrique Dubugras said that Weav’s API gives the company the ability to offer real-time funding to more customers selling on more platforms, which saved the company “thousands of engineering hours” and accelerated its rollout timeline by months.

Clearly, the company liked what it saw, considering that its founders personally invested in Weav. Is Weav building the “Plaid for commerce”? Guess only time will tell.

Crusoe Energy is tackling energy use for cryptocurrencies and data centers and greenhouse gas emissions

By Jonathan Shieber

The two founders of Crusoe Energy think they may have a solution to two of the largest problems facing the planet today — the increasing energy footprint of the tech industry and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the natural gas industry.

Crusoe, which uses excess natural gas from energy operations to power data centers and cryptocurrency mining operations, has just raised $128 million in new financing from some of the top names in the venture capital industry to build out its operations — and the timing couldn’t be better.

Methane emissions are emerging as a new area of focus for researchers and policymakers focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming within the 1.5 degree targets set under the Paris Agreement. And those emissions are just what Crusoe Energy is capturing to power its data centers and bitcoin mining operations.

The reason why addressing methane emissions is so critical in the short term is because these greenhouse gases trap more heat than their carbon dioxide counterparts and also dissipate more quickly. So dramatic reductions in methane emissions can do more in the short term to alleviate the global warming pressures that human industry is putting on the environment.

And the biggest source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. In the U.S. alone roughly 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas is flared daily, said Chase Lochmiller, a co-founder of Crusoe Energy. About two thirds of that is flared in Texas with another 500 million cubic feet flared in North Dakota, where Crusoe has focused its operations to date.

For Lochmiller, a former quant trader at some of the top American financial services institutions, and Cully Cavmess, a third generation oil and gas scion, the ability to capture natural gas and harness it for computing operations is a natural combination of the two men’s interests in financial engineering and environmental preservation.

NEW TOWN, ND – AUGUST 13: View of three oil wells and flaring of natural gas on The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, ND on August 13, 2014. About 100 million dollars worth of natural gas burns off per month because a pipeline system isn’t in place yet to capture and safely transport it . The Three Affiliated Tribes on Fort Berthold represent Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations. It’s also at the epicenter of the fracking and oil boom that has brought oil royalties to a large number of native americans living there. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The two Denver natives met in prep-school and remained friends. When Lochmiller left for MIT and Cavness headed off to Middlebury they didn’t know that they’d eventually be launching a business together. But through Lochmiller’s exposure to large scale computing and the financial services industry, and Cavness assumption of the family business they came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to address the massive waste associated with natural gas.

Conversation around Crusoe Energy began in 2018 when Lochmiller and Cavness went climbing in the Rockies to talk about Lochmiller’s trip to Mt. Everest.

When the two men started building their business, the initial focus was on finding an environmentally friendly way to deal with the energy footprint of bitcoin mining operations. It was this pitch that brought the company to the attention of investors at Polychain, the investment firm started by Olaf Carlson-Wee (and Lochmiller’s former employer), and investors like Bain Capital Ventures and new investor Valor Equity Partners.

(This was also the pitch that Lochmiller made to me to cover the company’s seed round. At the time I was skeptical of the company’s premise and was worried that the business would just be another way to prolong the use of hydrocarbons while propping up a cryptocurrency that had limited actual utility beyond a speculative hedge against governmental collapse. I was wrong on at least one of those assessments.)

“Regarding questions about sustainability, Crusoe has a clear standard of only pursuing projects that are net reducers of emissions. Generally the wells that Crusoe works with are already flaring and would continue to do so in the absence of Crusoe’s solution. The company has turned down numerous projects where they would be a buyer of low cost gas from a traditional pipeline because they explicitly do not want to be net adders of demand and emissions,” wrote a spokesman for Valor Equity in an email. “In addition, mining is increasingly moving to renewables and Crusoe’s approach to stranded energy can enable better economics for stranded or marginalized renewables, ultimately bringing more renewables into the mix. Mining can provide an interruptible base load demand that can be cut back when grid demand increases, so overall the effect to incentivize the addition of more renewable energy sources to the grid.”

Other investors have since piled on including: Lowercarbon Capital, DRW Ventures, Founders Fund, Coinbase Ventures, KCK Group, Upper90, Winklevoss Capital, Zigg Capital and Tesla co-founder JB Straubel.

The company now operate 40 modular data centers powered by otherwise wasted and flared natural gas throughout North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Next year that number should expand to 100 units as Crusoe enters new markets such as Texas and New Mexico. Since launching in 2018, Crusoe has emerged as a scalable solution to reduce flaring through energy intensive computing such as bitcoin mining, graphical rendering, artificial intelligence model training and even protein folding simulations for COVID-19 therapeutic research.

Crusoe boasts 99.9% combustion efficiency for its methane, and is also bringing additional benefits in the form of new networking buildout at its data center and mining sites. Eventually, this networking capacity could lead to increased connectivity for rural communities surrounding the Crusoe sites.

Currently, 80% of the company’s operations are being used for bitcoin mining, but there’s increasing demand for use in data center operations and some universities, including Lochmiller’s alma mater of MIT are looking at the company’s offerings for their own computing needs.

“That’s very much in an incubated phase right now,” said Lochmiller. “A private alpha where we have a few test customers… we’ll make that available for public use later this year.”

Crusoe Energy Systems should have the lowest data center operating costs in the world, according to Lochmiller and while the company will spend money to support the infrastructure buildout necessary to get the data to customers, those costs are negligible when compared to energy consumption, Lochmiller said.

The same holds true for bitcoin mining, where the company can offer an alternative to coal powered mining operations in China and the construction of new renewable capacity that wouldn’t be used to service the grid. As cryptocurrencies look for a way to blunt criticism about the energy usage involved in their creation and distribution, Crusoe becomes an elegant solution.

Institutional and regulatory tailwinds are also propelling the company forward. Recently New Mexico passed new laws limiting flaring and venting to no more than 2 percent of an operator’s production by April of next year and North Dakota is pushing for incentives to support on-site flare capture systems while Wyoming signed a law creating incentives for flare gas reduction applied to bitcoin mining. The world’s largest financial services firms are also taking a stand against flare gas with BlackRock calling for an end to routine flaring by 2025.

“Where we view our power consumption, we draw a very clear line in our project evaluation stage where we’re reducing emissions for an oil and gas projects,” Lochmiller said. 

Apple commits to 20,000 US jobs, new North Carolina campus

By Brian Heater

Apple this morning announced a sweeping plan to invest north of $430 billion over the next five years. The company says the deal involves “economic benefits” in all 50 states and would create, all told, 20,000 additional jobs in the United States over that time period.

The plan is an extension of one it announced in 2018, raising the original $350 billion goal by 20%. At the center of the announcement is the long anticipated creation of an additional campus in North Carolina. That involves a $1 billion investment in the Research Triangle, including 3,000 jobs that will focus on emerging fields like machine learning and AI.

“Innovation has long been North Carolina’s calling card and Apple’s decision to build this new campus in the Research Triangle showcases the importance of our state’s favorable business climate, world-class universities, our tech-ready workforce, and the welcoming and diverse communities that make so many people want to call North Carolina home,” state leaders said in a joint statement. “This announcement will benefit communities across our state and we are proud to work together to continue to grow our economy and bring transformational industries and good paying jobs to North Carolina.”

The company has also outlined a $100 million fund for community and schools in the surrounding Raleigh-Durham area, as well as a $110 million spend on infrastructure.

“At this moment of recovery and rebuilding, Apple is doubling down on our commitment to US innovation and manufacturing with a generational investment reaching communities across all 50 states,” Tim Cook said in a release tied to the news. “We’re creating jobs in cutting-edge fields — from 5G to silicon engineering to artificial intelligence — investing in the next generation of innovative new businesses, and in all our work, building toward a greener and more equitable future.”

Other US operation initiatives have been outlined for the company’s native California, as well as Colorado, Texas, Washington and Iowa. California gets the biggest initial boost here, with 5,000 more employees being added to its San Diego office and 3,000 more for Culver City. Indiana, Kentucky and Texas has already begun adding positions as part of the $5 billion Advanced Manufacturing Fund the company launched in 2017.

The news comes a week after Wisconsin announced plans to dramatically scale back the creation of a Foxconn plant set to manufacture flatscreen TVs. During his presidency, Donald Trump had called the planned factory, “the eighth wonder of the world,” and central to his plans to return manufacturing to the U.S. while courting various high profile tech executives, including Cook.

Score a free 30-day Extra Crunch membership when you buy a pass to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Alexandra Ames

Does the science, technology — and yes, art — of creating new ways to transport people and parcels get your EV motor running? Then join us on June 9 at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021.

We’ll pack the day with interactive presentations and breakout sessions. Explore new tech, find emerging trends, discover what’s catching investor interest — and learn about evolving regulatory issues that affect the way mobility startups engage with cities and towns around the globe.

Buy your pass and take advantage of this extra perk — one free month of access to Extra Crunch, our members-only program featuring exclusive daily articles for founders and startup teams. Can you say value add? Yes, yes you can.

Pro Tip 1: Did you already buy a pass? No worries — we’ll email existing pass holders details on how they can claim their free Extra Crunch membership. All new ticket purchasers will receive information via email immediately after they complete their purchase.

Pro Tip 2: Do you already subscribe to Extra Crunch? Simply email extracrunch@techcrunch.com, tell us you’re an existing Extra Crunch member who bought a ticket to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, and we’ll happily extend your membership.

TechCrunch always delivers the top experts in their field, and this event is no exception. You’ll connect and engage with the mobility movers, shakers, influencers and makers. It’s an opportunity to expand your network, find funding, forge new partnerships and yes, scope out your competition, too.

Here’s a peek at just some of the super speakers who will grace TC Mobility 2021’s virtual stage.

Can mobility be accessible, equitable and profitable? We tapped three heavy hitters to tackle this hot topic: Tamika L. Butler, a community organizer, transportation consultant and lawyer; Remix co-founder and CEO, Tiffany Chu; and Frank Reig, Revel co-founder and CEO.

Joby Aviation founder JoeBen Bevirt and Reid Hoffman, a LinkedIn co-founder and an investor who knows a thing or two about SPACs, will share their expertise on building a startup, keeping it secret while raising funds, the future of flight and, of course, SPACs.

What do people say about their Mobility experience? Rachael Wilcox, a creative producer at Volvo Cars — and a serial TC Sessions: Mobility attendee — told us why she makes it a point to attend every year.

“I go to TC Sessions: Mobility to find new and interesting companies, make new business connections and look for startups with investment potential. It’s an opportunity to expand my knowledge and inform my work.”

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place on June 9. Early-bird savings remain in effect until May 5, at 11:59 pm (PT). Buy your pass now, save money and enjoy one month of free access to Extra Crunch. Yay!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Fraud prevention platform Sift raises $50M at over $1B valuation, eyes acquisitions

By Mary Ann Azevedo

With the increase of digital transacting over the past year, cybercriminals have been having a field day.

In 2020, complaints of suspected internet crime surged by 61%, to 791,790, according to the FBI’s 2020 Internet Crime Report. Those crimes — ranging from personal and corporate data breaches to credit card fraud, phishing and identity theft — cost victims more than $4.2 billion.

For companies like Sift — which aims to predict and prevent fraud online even more quickly than cybercriminals adopt new tactics — that increase in crime also led to an increase in business.

Last year, the San Francisco-based company assessed risk on more than $250 billion in transactions, double from what it did in 2019. The company has over several hundred customers, including Twitter, Airbnb, Twilio, DoorDash, Wayfair and McDonald’s, as well a global data network of 70 billion events per month.

To meet the surge in demand, Sift said today it has raised $50 million in a funding round that values the company at over $1 billion. Insight Partners led the financing, which included participation from Union Square Ventures and Stripes.

While the company would not reveal hard revenue figures, President and CEO Marc Olesen said that business has tripled since he joined the company in June 2018. Sift was founded out of Y Combinator in 2011, and has raised a total of $157 million over its lifetime.

The company’s “Digital Trust & Safety” platform aims to help merchants not only fight all types of internet fraud and abuse, but to also “reduce friction” for legitimate customers. There’s a fine line apparently between looking out for a merchant and upsetting a customer who is legitimately trying to conduct a transaction.

Sift uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically surmise whether an attempted transaction or interaction with a business online is authentic or potentially problematic.

Image Credits:

One of the things the company has discovered is that fraudsters are often not working alone.

“Fraud vectors are no longer siloed. They are highly innovative and often working in concert,” Olesen said. “We’ve uncovered a number of fraud rings.”

Olesen shared a couple of examples of how the company thwarted fraud incidents last year. One recently involved money laundering through donation sites where fraudsters tested stolen debit and credit cards through fake donation sites at guest checkout.

“By making small donations to themselves, they laundered that money and at the same tested the validity of the stolen cards so they could use it on another site with significantly higher purchases,” he said. 

In another case, the company uncovered fraudsters using Telegram, a social media site, to make services available, such as food delivery, with stolen credentials.

The data that Sift has accumulated since its inception helps the company “act as the central nervous system for fraud teams.” Sift says that its models become more intelligent with every customer that it integrates.

Insight Partners Managing Director Jeff Lieberman, who is a Sift board member, said his firm initially invested in Sift in 2016 because even at that time, it was clear that online fraud was “rapidly growing.” It was growing not just in dollar amounts, he said, but in the number of methods cybercriminals used to steal from consumers and businesses.

Sift has a novel approach to fighting fraud that combines massive data sets with machine learning, and it has a track record of proving its value for hundreds of online businesses,” he wrote via email.

When Olesen and the Sift team started the recent process of fundraising, Index actually approached them before they started talking to outside investors “because both the product and business fundamentals are so strong, and the growth opportunity is massive,” Lieberman added.

“With more businesses heavily investing in online channels, nearly every one of them needs a solution that can intelligently weed out fraud while ensuring a seamless experience for the 99% of transactions or actions that are legitimate,” he wrote. 

The company plans to use its new capital primarily to expand its product portfolio and to scale its product, engineering and sales teams.

Sift also recently tapped Eu-Gene Sung — who has worked in financial leadership roles at Integral Ad Science, BSE Global and McCann — to serve as its CFO.

As to whether or not that meant an IPO is in Sift’s future, Olesen said that Sung’s experience of taking companies through a growth phase such as what Sift is experiencing would be valuable. The company is also for the first time looking to potentially do some M&A.

“When we think about expanding our portfolio, it’s really a buy/build partner approach,” Olesen said.

Brazil’s Loft adds $100M to its accounts, $700M to its valuation in a single month

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Nearly exactly one month ago, digital real estate platform Loft announced it had closed on $425 million in Series D funding led by New York-based D1 Capital Partners. The round included participation from a mix of new and existing investors such as DST, Tiger Global, Andreessen Horowitz, Fifth Wall and QED, among many others.

At the time, Loft was valued at $2.2 billion, a huge jump from its being just near unicorn territory in January 2020. The round marked one of the largest ever for a Brazilian startup.

Now, today, São Paulo-based Loft has announced an extension to that round with the closing of $100 million in additional funding that values the company at $2.9 billion. This means that the 3-year-old startup has increased its valuation by $700 million in a matter of weeks.

Baillie Gifford led the Series D-2 round, which also included participation from Tarsadia, Flight Deck, Caffeinated and others. Individuals also put money in the extension, including the founders of Better (Vishal Garg), GoPuff, Instacart, Kavak and Sweetgreen.

Loft has seen great success in its efforts to serve as a “one-stop shop” for Brazilians to help them manage the home buying and selling process. 

Image courtesy of Loft

In 2020, Loft saw the number of listings on its site increase “10 to 15 times,” according to co-founder and co-CEO Mate Pencz. Today, the company actively maintains more than 13,000 property listings in approximately 130 regions across São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, partnering with more than 30,000 brokers. Not only are more people open to transacting digitally, more people are looking to buy versus rent in the country.

“We did more than 6x YoY growth with many thousands of transactions over the course of 2020,” Pencz told TechCrunch at the time of the company’s last raise. “We’re now growing into the many tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of active listings.”

The decision to raise more capital so soon was due to a variety of factors. For one, Loft has received “overwhelming investor interest” even after “a very, very oversubscribed main round,” Pencz said.

“We have seen a continued acceleration in our market share growth, especially in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two markets we currently operate in,” he added. “We saw an opportunity to grow even faster with additional capital.”

Pencz also pointed out that Baillie Gifford has relatively large minimum check size requirements, which led to the extension being conducted at a higher price and increased the total round size “by quite a bit to be able to accommodate them.”

While the company was less forthcoming about its financials as of late, it told me last year that it had notched “over $150 million in annualized revenues in its first full year of operation” via more than 1,000 transactions.

The company’s revenues and GMV (gross merchandise value) “increased significantly” in 2020, according to Pencz, who declined to provide more specifics. He did say those figures are “multiples higher from where they were,” and that Loft has “a very clear horizon to profitability.”

Pencz and Florian Hagenbuch founded Loft in early 2018 and today serve as its co-CEOs. The aim of the platform, in the company’s words, is “bringing Latin American real estate into the e-commerce age by developing online alternatives to analogue legacy processes and leveraging data to create transparency in highly opaque markets.” The U.S. real estate tech company with the closest model to Loft’s is probably Zillow, according to Pencz.

In the United States, prospective buyers and sellers have the benefit of MLSs, which in the words of the National Association of Realtors, are private databases that are created, maintained and paid for by real estate professionals to help their clients buy and sell property. Loft itself spent years and many dollars in creating its own such databases for the Brazilian market. Besides helping people buy and sell homes, it offers services around insurance, renovations and rentals.

In 2020, Loft also entered the mortgage business by acquiring one of the largest mortgage brokerage businesses in Brazil. The startup now ranks among the top-three mortgage originators in the country, according to Pencz. When it comes to helping people apply for mortgages, he likened Loft to U.S.-based Better.com.

This latest financing brings Loft’s total funding raised to an impressive $800 million. Other backers include Brazil’s Canary and a group of high-profile angel investors such as Max Levchin of Affirm and PayPal, Palantir co-founder Joe Lonsdale, Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and David Vélez, CEO and founder of Brazilian fintech Nubank. In addition, Loft has also raised more than $100 million in debt financing through a series of publicly listed real estate funds.

Loft plans to use its new capital in part to expand across Brazil and eventually in Latin America and beyond. The company is also planning to explore more M&A opportunities.

Attack of the robotic SPACs

By Brian Heater

That thing I said the other week about robotics SPACs being relatively few and far between is becoming less and less true. It’s like someone walked down to the local robotics club, explained the admittedly somewhat convoluted methods around robotics mergers and the rest of the industry decided that they, too, wanted to get in on this action.

Joining the list that already includes warehouse automation firm Berkshire-Gray and exoskeleton company Sarcos is Vicarious Surgical. The surgical category is definitely one to keep an eye on going forward for these deals. Not only is it a massive industry with intricate and expensive procedures, it’s one that’s been proven out for several decades now, thanks in no small part to players like Intuitive, which received FDA approval more than 20 years ago for its da Vinci system.

Vicarious has been kicking around since 2015 and has raised $43.2 million to date. The company’s got some big names in its corner, including Bill Gates via the Gates Frontier Fund, as well as backing from the likes of Marc Benioff. The company utilizes virtual reality so surgical operations can be performed remotely. The SPAC deal values the firm at $1.1 billion and will net Vicarious up to $425 million.

Sizable round from Canvas last week, as well. No, not the autonomous cart company acquired by Amazon Robotics a couple of years back. The San Francisco-based robotic drywall startup raised a $24 million Series B. One of the most interesting things we’re seeing out of the robotics construction space isn’t just the potential size of the industry, but the breadth of applications. There are just so many different places where robotics and automation could play a key role in the future.

Image Credits: ANYbotics

One of the bigger surprises of the week is the commercial arrival of ANYbotics’ ANYmal robot. We’ve seen the quadrupedal robot in a number of different iterations over the years. The comparisons to Boston Dynamics’ Spot system is, of course, unavoidable, though the Swiss company has been working on their proprietary tech for several years now.

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising that the first commercial application for the robot is similar to that of Spot. Specifically, it’s designed to patrol potentially unsafe working spaces, including electrical and industrial plants. ANYmal has a customizable array of sensors up top for visual and audio inspections, among others.

Image Credits: University of Tubingen

Here’s a neat project out of Germany’s University of Tubingen. Researchers designed a robot to mimic the movements of an elephant trunk. This early version is comprised of low-cost (and colorful) 3D-printed components that are capable of grasping a range of different objects. The group hopes to one day adapt the technology for industrial grasping applications.

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