In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.
California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.
It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.
Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.
Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.
Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”
A stealthy startup co-founded by a former senior designer from Apple and one of its ex-senior software engineers has picked up a significant round funding to build out its business. Humane, which has ambitions to build a new class of consumer devices and technologies that stem from “a genuine collaboration of design and engineering” that will represent “the next shift between humans and computing”, has raised $100 million.
This is a Series B, and it’s coming from some very high profile backers. Tiger Global Management is leading the round, with SoftBank Group, BOND, Forerunner Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures also participating. Other investors in this Series B include Sam Altman, Lachy Groom, Kindred Ventures, Marc Benioff’s TIME Ventures, Valia Ventures, NEXT VENTŪRES, Plexo Capital and the legal firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Humane has been around actually since 2017, but it closed/filed its Series A only last year: $30 million in September 2020 at a $150 million valuation, according to PitchBook. Previous to that, it had raised just under $12 million, with many of the investors in this current round backing Humane in those earlier fundraises, too.
Valuation with this Series B is not being disclosed, the company confirmed to me.
Given that Humane has not yet released any products, nor has said much at all about what it has up its sleeve; and given that hardware in general presents a lot of unique challenges and therefore is often seen as a risky bet (that old “hardware is hard” chestnut), you might be wondering how Humane, still in stealth, has attracted these backers.
Some of that attention possibly stems from the fact that the two co-founders, husband-and-wife team Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, are something of icons in their own right. Bongiorno, who is Humane’s CEO, had been the software engineering director at Apple. Chaudhri, who is Humane’s chairman and president, is Apple’s former director of design, where he worked for 20 years on some of its most seminal products — the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac. Both have dozens of patents credited to them from their time there, and they have picked up a few since then, too.
Those latest patents — plus the very extensive list of job openings listed on Humane’s otherwise quite sparse site — might be the closest clues we have for what the pair and their startup might be building.
One patent is for a “Wearable multimedia device and cloud computing platform with laser projection system”; another is for a “System and apparatus for fertility and hormonal cycle awareness.”
Meanwhile, the company currently has nearly 50 job openings listed, including engineers with camera and computer vision experience, hardware engineers, designers, and security experts, among many others. (One sign of where all that funding will be going.) There is already an impressive team of about 60 people the company, which is another detail that attracted investors.
“The caliber of individuals working at Humane is incredibly impressive,” said Chase Coleman, Partner, Tiger Global, in a statement. “These are people who have built and shipped transformative products to billions of people around the world. What they are building is groundbreaking with the potential to become a standard for computing going forward.”
I’ve asked for more details on the company’s product roadmap and ethos behind the company, and who its customers might potentially be: other firms for whom it designs products, or end users directly?
For now, Bongiorno and Chaudhri seem to hint that part of what has motivated them to start this business was to reimagine what role technology might play in the next wave of innovation. It’s a question that many ask, but not many try to actually invest in finding the answer. For that alone, it’s worth watching Humane (if Humane lets us, that is: it’s still very much in stealth) to see what it does next.
“Humane is a place where people can truly innovate through a genuine collaboration of design and engineering,” the co-founders said in a joint statement. “We are an experience company that creates products for the benefit of people, crafting technology that puts people first — a more personal technology that goes beyond what we know today. We’re all waiting for something new, something that goes beyond the information age that we have all been living with. At Humane, we’re building the devices and the platform for what we call the intelligence age. We are committed to building a different type of company, founded on our values of trust, truth and joy. With the support of our partners, we will continue to scale the team with individuals who not only share our passion for revolutionizing the way we interact with computing, but also for how we build.”
Update: After publishing, I got a little more from Humane about its plans. Its aim is to build “technology that improves the human experience and is born of good intentions; products that put us back in touch with ourselves, each other, and the world around us; and experiences that are built on trust, with interactions that feel magical and bring joy.” It’s not a whole lot to go on, but more generally it’s an approach that seems to want to step away from the cycle we’re on today, and be more mindful and thoughtful. If they can execute on this, while still building rather than wholesale rejecting technology, they might be on to something.
Heroes, one of the new wave of startups aiming to build big e-commerce businesses by buying up smaller third-party merchants on Amazon’s Marketplace, has raised another big round of funding to double down on that strategy. The London startup has picked up $200 million, money that it will mainly be using to snap up more merchants. Existing brands in its portfolio cover categories like babies, pets, sports, personal health and home and garden categories — some of them, like PremiumCare dog chews, the Onco baby car mirror, gardening tool brand Davaon and wooden foot massager roller Theraflow, category best-sellers — and the plan is to continue building up all of these verticals.
Crayhill Capital Management, a fund based out of New York, is providing the funding, and Riccardo Bruni — who co-founded the company with twin brother Alessio and third brother Giancarlo — said that the bulk of it will be going toward making acquisitions, and is therefore coming in the form of debt.
Raising debt rather than equity at this point is pretty standard for companies like Heroes. Heroes itself is pretty young: it launched less than a year ago, in November 2020, with $65 million in funding, a round comprised of both equity and debt. Other investors in the startup include 360 Capital, Fuel Ventures and Upper 90.
Heroes is playing in what is rapidly becoming a very crowded field. Not only are there tens of thousands of businesses leveraging Amazon’s extensive fulfillment network to sell goods on the e-commerce giant’s marketplace, but some days it seems we are also rapidly approaching a state of nearly as many startups launching to consolidate these third-party sellers.
Many a roll-up play follows a similar playbook, which goes like this: Amazon provides the marketplace to sell goods to consumers, and the infrastructure to fulfill those orders, by way of Fulfillment By Amazon and its Prime service. Meanwhile, the roll-up business — in this case Heroes — buys up a number of the stronger companies leveraging FBA and the marketplace. Then, by consolidating them into a single tech platform that they have built, Heroes creates better economies of scale around better and more efficient supply chains, sharper machine learning and marketing and data analytics technology, and new growth strategies.
What is notable about Heroes, though — apart from the fact that it’s the first roll-up player to come out of the U.K., and continues to be one of the bigger players in Europe — is that it doesn’t believe that the technology plays as important a role as having a solid relationship with the companies it’s targeting, key given that now the top marketplace sellers are likely being feted by a number of companies as acquisition targets.
“The tech is very important,” said Alessio in an interview. “It helps us build robust processes that tie all the systems together across multiple brands and marketplaces. But what we have is very different from a SaaS business. We are not building an app, and tech is not the core of what we do. From the acquisitions side, we believe that human interactions ultimately win. We don’t think tech can replace a strong acquisition process.”
Image Credits: Heroes
Heroes’ three founder-brothers (two of them, Riccardo and Alessio, pictured above) have worked across a number of investment, finance and operational roles (the CVs include Merrill Lynch, EQT Ventures, Perella Weinberg Partners, Lazada, Nomura and Liberty Global) and they say there have been strong signs so far of its strategy working: of the brands that it has acquired since launching in November, they claim business (sales) has grown five-fold.
Collectively, the roll-up startups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars to fuel these efforts. Other recent hopefuls that have announced funding this year include Suma Brands ($150 million); Elevate Brands ($250 million); Perch ($775 million); factory14 ($200 million); Thrasio (currently probably the biggest of them all in terms of reach and money raised and ambitions), Heyday, The Razor Group, Branded, SellerX, Berlin Brands Group (X2), Benitago, Latin America’s Valoreo and Rainforest and Una Brands out of Asia.
The picture that is emerging across many of these operations is that many of these companies, Heroes included, do not try to make their particular approaches particularly more distinctive than those of their competitors, simply because — with nearly 10 million third-party sellers today on Amazon globally — the opportunity is likely big enough for all of them, and more, not least because of current market dynamics.
“It’s no secret that we were inspired by Thrasio and others,” Riccardo said. “Combined with COVID-19, there has been a massive acceleration of e-commerce across the continent.” It was that, plus the realization that the three brothers had the right e-commerce, fundraising and investment skills between them, that made them see what was a ‘perfect storm’ to tackle the opportunity, he continued. “So that is why we jumped into it.”
In the case of Heroes, while the majority of the funding will be used for acquisitions, it’s also planning to double headcount from its current 70 employees before the end of this year with a focus on operational experts to help run their acquired businesses.
As the global market for startup investing presses to new heights in terms of dollars invested this year, and deal volume ticks up in several regions, corporations are diving into the action.
Data from CB Insights and Stryber indicate that corporate investors are taking part in deals worth more than ever, even if corporate venture capital (CVC) deal activity is not up uniformly around the world.
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In a sense, it’s not surprising that CVCs are seeing the deals that they participate in rising in size — the global venture capital market has trended toward larger deals and more dollars for some time now. But questions lie inside the eye-popping figures: How are corporate investors adapting to a more rapid-fire and expensive venture capital market? We also wanted to know if CVCs are shaking up their deal sourcing, and whether the classic corporate venture tension between strategic investing and deploying capital for financial return is seeing a focus mix shift.
To help us understand the data we have at our fingertips, The Exchange reached out to M12’s Matt Goldstein, Sony Innovation Fund’s Gen Tsuchikawa and WIND Ventures’ Brian Walsh. (TechCrunch last covered CVC outfit WIND Ventures here.)
Let’s talk data and then dig into the nuance behind the numbers.
Precisely measuring CVC activity is interestingly difficult. When we discuss the value of venture capital deals, for example, what counts and what doesn’t is a matter of taste. For example, how to treat the SoftBank Vision Fund. Do deals that it leads that include venture capital participation count toward larger VC activity for a given period of time? What about investments led by crossover funds?
No matter what you choose, aggregate venture capital data will always include dollars invested by non-venture entities. So you do the best you can. CVC has the same problem, amplified. Because CVCs are often participatory to deals, instead of leading them, especially in the later stages of startup investing today, tallying concrete corporate venture investment is difficult. So we proceed in the same manner as we do with aggregate venture data counting, including deals that a particular investor type participated in.
Perfect, no. But it’s consistent, which is what we likely care about more. All that’s to say that when we observe the following deal and dollar data, CB Insights notes plainly that for its purposes, “‘CVC-backed funding’ and ‘CVC-backed deals’ refer to corporate venture capital participation in these funding rounds.”
Fair enough. Per CB Insights’ H1 2021 CVC report, CVCs participated in $78.7 billion in funding activity in the first half of 2021, a record for a half-year period. That dollar figure was derived from some 2,099 deals around the world. Precisely how strong those figures are is not clear from their absolute scale.
What a busy week in the world of media liquidity.
That’s a sentence you don’t get to write often. Regardless, news broke this week that Axel Springer is buying U.S. political journalism outfit POLITICO. The transaction was expected, but the eye-popping roughly $1 billion price tag still has tongues wagging. We even got on the podcast to chat about it.
And Forbes announced that it is going public via a SPAC. The business publication’s news follows BuzzFeed’s journey to the public markets through a blank-check company. Hot media liquidity summer? Something like that.
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That TechCrunch is in the process of being sold to private equity, of course, is not something that we should forget. Shoutout to the Verizon bankers who found a way to get rid of us while also deleveraging Verizon’s debt profile. Ten points.
I want to take a quick tour of the Forbes SPAC deck this morning. Our notes on BuzzFeed’s are here, in case you want to run comparisons. This will be easy and fun. Perfect Friday morning fare. Into the data!
In corporate-speak, Forbes Global Media Holdings is merging with blank-check company Magnum Opus Acquisition Limited. The transaction will close either Q4 2021 or Q1 2022, Forbes estimates.
The deal itself is somewhat modest in scale compared with other SPAC deals we’ve recently looked into. Forbes reports that it will sport “an implied pro forma enterprise value of $630 million, net of tax benefits,” after its completion. Some $600 million in gross proceeds will be derived from Magnum Opus funds “and $400 million of additional capital through a private placement of ordinary shares of the combined company,” Forbes writes.
The company will sport an equity valuation of $830 million after the deal closes, per its own calculations. That number will change some depending on redemptions ahead of the combination. The gap between the large dollars going into the deal and the modest final valuation of the public Forbes entity is due to some $440 million in secondary transactions for existing Forbes shareholders.
In case you’d prefer all of that in table form, here’s the Forbes investor deck:
Image Credits: Forbes SPAC deck
Is $830 million a fair price? Let’s dig into Forbes’ results.
Founders Fund and Paradigm are leading an investment in a platform that’s aiming to wed music rights with NFTs, allowing user to buy shares of songs through the company’s marketplace, earning royalties as the music they’ve invested in gains popularity.
The venture, called Royal, is led by Justin Blau, an EDM artist who performs under the name 3LAU, and JD Ross, a co-founder of home-buying startup Opendoor. Blau has been one of the more active and visible figures in the NFT community, launching a number of upstart efforts aimed at exploring how musicians can monetize their work through crypto markets. Blau says that as Covid cut off his ability to tour, he dug into NFTs full-time, aiming to find a way to flip the power dynamics on “platforms that were extracting all the value from creators.“
Back in March, weeks before many would first hear about NFTs following the $69 million Beeple sale at Christies, Blau set his own record, selling a batch of custom songs and custom artwork for a collective $11.7 million worth of cryptocurrency.
Royal’s investment announcement comes just as a broader bull run for the NFT market seems to reach a fever pitch with investors dumping hundreds of million of dollars worth of cryptocurrencies into community NFT projects like CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. While visual artists interested in putting their digital works on the blockchain have seen a number of platforms spring up and mature in recent months to simplify the process of monetizing their art, there have been fewer efforts focused on musicians.
Paradigm and Founders Fund are leading a $16 million seed round in Royal, with participation from Atomic — where Ross was recently a General Partner. Ross’s fellow Opendoor co-founder Keith Rabois led the deal for Founders Fund.
The company isn’t sharing an awful lot about their launch or product plans, including when the platform will actually begin selling fractionalized assets, but it seems pretty clear the company will be heavily leveraging Blau’s music and position inside the music industry to bring early fans/investors to the platform. Users can sign-up for early access on the site currently.
As NFT startups chase more complex ownership splits that aim to help creators share their success with fans, there’s plenty of speculation taking off around how regulators will eventually treat them. While the ICO boom of 2017 led to plenty of founders receiving SEC letters alleging securities fraud, entrepreneurs in this wave seem to be working a little harder to avoid that outcome. Blau says that the startup’s team is working closely with legal counsel to ensure the startup is staying fully compliant.
The company’s bigger challenge may be ensuring that democratizing access to buying up music rights actually benefits the fans of those artists or creates new fans for them, given the wide landscape of crypto speculators looking to diversify. That said, Blau notes there’s plenty of room for improvement among the current ownership spread of music royalties, largely spread among labels, private equity groups and hedge funds.
“A true fan might want to own something way earlier than a speculator would even get wind of it,” Blau says. “Democratizing access to asset classes is a huge part of crypto’s future.”
Copenhagen-based process automation platform Leapwork has snagged Denmark’s largest ever Series B funding round, announcing a $62 million raise co-led by KKR and Salesforce Ventures, with existing investors DN Capital and Headline also participating.
Also today it’s disclosing that its post-money valuation now stands at $312M.
The ‘no code’ 2015-founded startup last raised back in 2019, when it snagged a $10M Series A. The business was bootstrapped through earlier years — with the founders putting in their own money, garnered from prior successful exits. Their follow on bet on ‘no code’ already looks to have paid off in spades: Since launching the platform in 2017, Leapwork has seen its customer base more than double year on year and it now has a roster of 300+ customers around the world paying it to speed up their routine business processes.
Software testing is a particular focus for the tools, which Leapwork pitches at enterprises’ quality assurance and test teams.
It claims that by using its ‘no code’ tech — a label for the trend which refers to software that’s designed to be accessible to non-technical staff, greatly increasing its utility and applicability — businesses can achieve a 10x faster time to market, 97% productivity gains, and a 90% reduction in application errors. So the wider pitch is that it can support enterprises to achieve faster digital transformations with only their existing mix of in-house skills.
Customers include the likes of PayPal, Mercedes-Benz and BNP Paribas.
Leapwork’s own business, meanwhile, has grown to a team of 170 people — working across nine offices throughout Europe, North America and Asia.
The Series B funding will be used to accelerate its global expansion, with the startup telling us it plans to expand the size of its local teams in key markets and open a series of tech hubs to support further product development.
Expanding in North America is a big priority now, with Leapwork noting it recently opened a New York office — where it plans to “significantly” increase headcount.
“In terms of our global presence, we want to ensure we are as close to our customers as possible, by continuing to build up local teams and expertise across each of our key markets, especially Europe and North America,” CEO and co-founder Christian Brink Frederiksen tells TechCrunch. “For example, we will build up more expertise and plan to really scale up the size of the team based out of our New York office over the next 12 months.
“Equally we have opened new offices across Europe, so we want to ensure our teams have the scope to work closely with customers. We also plan to invest heavily in the product and the technology that underpins it. For example, we’ll be doubling the size of our tech hubs in Copenhagen and India over the next 12 months.”
Product development set to be accelerated with the chunky Series B will focus on enhancements and functionality aimed at “breaking down the language barrier between humans and computers”, as Brink Frederiksen puts it
“Europe and the US are our two main markets. Half of our customers are US companies,” he also tells us, adding: “We are extremely popular among enterprise customers, especially those with complex compliance set-ups — 40% of our customers come from enterprises banking, insurance and financial services.
“Having said that, because our solution is no-code, it is heavily used across industries, including healthcare and life sciences, logistics and transportation, retail, manufacturing and more.”
Asked about competitors — given that the no code space has become a seething hotbed of activity over a number of years — Leapwork’s initial response is coy, trying the line that its business is a ‘truly special snowflake’. (“We truly believe we are the only solution that allows non-technical everyday business users to automate repetitive computer processes, without needing to understand how to code. Our no-code, visual language is what really sets us apart,” is how Brink Frederiksen actually phrases that.)
But on being pressed Leapwork names a raft of what it calls “legacy players” — such as Tricentis, Smartbear, Ranorex, MicroFocus, Eggplant Software, Mabl and Selenium — as (also) having “great products”, while continuing to claim they “speak to a different audience than we do”.
Certainly Leapwork’s Series B raise speaks loudly of how much value investors are seeing here.
Commenting in a statement, Patrick Devine, director at KKR, said: “Test automation has historically been very challenging at scale, and it has become a growing pain point as the pace of software development continues to accelerate. Leapwork’s primary mission since its founding has been to solve this problem, and it has impressively done so with its powerful no-code automation platform.”
“The team at Leapwork has done a fantastic job building a best-in-class corporate culture which has allowed them to continuously innovate, execute and push the boundaries of their automation platform,” added Stephen Shanley, managing director at KKR, in another statement.
In a third supporting statement, Nowi Kallen, principal at Salesforce Ventures, added: “Leapwork has tapped into a significant market opportunity with its no-code test automation software. With Christian and Claus [Rosenkrantz Topholt] at the helm and increased acceleration to digital adoption, we look forward to seeing Leapwork grow in the coming years and a successful partnership.”
The proof of the no code ‘pudding’ is in adoption and usage — getting non-developers to take to and stick with a new way of interfacing with and manipulating information. And so far, for Leapwork, the signs are looking good.
On October 27, we’re taking on the ferociously competitive field of software as a service (SaaS), and we’re thrilled to announce our packed agenda, overflowing with some of the biggest names and most exciting startups in the industry. And you’re in luck, because $75 early-bird tickets are still on sale — make sure you book yours so you can enjoy all the agenda has to offer and save $100 bucks before prices go up!
Throughout the day, you can expect to hear from industry experts, and take part in discussions about the potential of new advances in data, open source, how to deal with the onslaught of security threats, investing in early-stage startups and plenty more.
We’ll be joined by some of the biggest names and the smartest and most prescient people in the industry, including Javier Soltero at Google, Kathy Baxter at Salesforce, Jared Spataro at Microsoft, Jay Kreps at Confluent, Sarah Guo at Greylock and Daniel Dines at UiPath.
You’ll be able to find and engage with people from all around the world through world-class networking on our virtual platform — all for $75 and under for a limited time with even deeper discounts for nonprofits and government agencies, students and up-and-coming founders!
Our agenda showcases some of the powerhouses in the space, but also plenty of smaller teams that are building and debunking fundamental technologies in the industry. We still have a few tricks up our sleeves and will be adding some new names to the agenda over the next month, so keep your eyes open.
In the meantime, check out these agenda highlights:
We’ll have more sessions and names shortly, so stay tuned. But get excited in the meantime, we certainly are.
Pro tip: Keep your finger on the pulse of TC Sessions: SaaS. Get updates when we announce new speakers, add events and offer ticket discounts.
Why should you carve a day out of your hectic schedule to attend TC Sessions: SaaS? This may be the first year we’ve focused on SaaS, but this ain’t our first rodeo. Here’s what other attendees have to say about their TC Sessions experience.
“TC Sessions: Mobility offers several big benefits. First, networking opportunities that result in concrete partnerships. Second, the chance to learn the latest trends and how mhttps://techcrunch.com/2021/06/24/databricks-co-founder-and-ceo-ali-ghodsi-is-coming-to-tc-sessions-saas/obility will evolve. Third, the opportunity for unknown startups to connect with other mobility companies and build brand awareness.” — Karin Maake, senior director of communications at FlashParking.
“People want to be around what’s interesting and learn what trends and issues they need to pay attention to. Even large companies like GM and Ford were there, because they’re starting to see the trend move toward mobility. They want to learn from the experts, and TC Sessions: Mobility has all the experts.” — Melika Jahangiri, vice president at Wunder Mobility.