Cape Town based startup Zindi has registered 10,000 data-scientists on its platform that uses AI and machine learning to crowdsolve complex problems in Africa.
Founded in 2018, the early-stage venture allows companies, NGOs or government institutions to host online competitions around data-oriented challenges.
Zindi opens the contests to the African data scientists on its site who can join a competition, submit solution sets, move up a leader board and win — for a cash prize payout.
The highest purse so far has been $12,000, according to Zindi co-founder Celina Lee. Competition hosts receive the results, which they can use to create new products or integrate into their existing systems and platforms.
It’s free for data scientists to create a profile on the site, but those who fund the competitions pay Zindi a fee, which is how the startup generates revenue.
The South African National Roads Agency sponsored a challenge in 2019 to reduce traffic fatalities in South Africa. The stated objective is “to build a machine learning model that accurately predicts when and where the next road incident will occur in Cape Town… to enable South African authorities… to put measures in place that will… ensure safety.”
Attaining 10,000 registered data-scientists represents a more than 100 percent increase for Zindi since August 2019, when TechCrunch last spoke to Lee.
The startup — which is in the process of raising a Series A funding round — plans to connect its larger roster to several new platform initiatives. Zindi will launch a university wide hack-competition, called UmojoHack Africa, across 10 countries in March.
“We’re also working on a section on our site that is specifically designed to run hackathons…something that organizations and universities could use to upskill their students or teams specifically,” Lee said.
Lee (who’s originally from San Francisco) co-founded Zindi with South African Megan Yates and Ghanaian Ekow Duker. They lead a team in the company’s Cape Town office.
For Lee, the startup is a merger of two facets of her experience.
“It all just came together. I have this math-y tech background, and I was working in non-profits and development, but I’d always been trying to join the two worlds,” she said.
That happened with Zindi, which is for-profit — though roughly 80% of the startup’s competitions have some social impact angle, according to Lee.
“In an African context, solving problems for for-profit companies can definitely have social impact as well,” she said.
With most of the continent’s VC focused on fintech or e-commerce startups, Zindi joins a unique group of ventures — such as Andela and Gebeya — that are building tech-talent in Africa’s data-scientist and software engineer space.
If Zindi can convene data-scientists to solve problems for companies and governments across the entire continent that could open up a vast addressable market.
It could also see the startup become an alternative to more expensive consulting firms operating in Africa’s large economies, such as South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya .
Tesla said Thursday it plans to raise more than $2 billion through a common stock offering and will use the funds to strengthen its balance sheet and for general corporate purposes, despite signaling just two weeks ago that it would not seek to raise more cash.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk will purchase up to $10 million in shares in the offering, while Oracle co-founder and Tesla board member Larry Ellison will buy up to $1 million worth of Tesla shares, according to the securities filing.
The automaker has also granted underwriters a 30-day option to purchase up to $300 million of additional common stock. If underwriters exercise that option, Tesla could raise as much as $2.3 billion.
The stock offering conflicts with statements Musk and CFO Zach Kirkhorn made last month during Tesla’s fourth-quarter earnings call. An institutional investor asked that given the recent run in the share price, why not raise capital now and substantially accelerate the growth in production? At the time, Musk said the company was spending money sensibly and that there is no “artificial hold back on expenditures.”
“We’re spending money I think efficiently and we’re not artificially limiting our progress,” Musk said dueing the January 29 call. “And then despite all that we are still generating positive cash. So in light of that, it doesn’t make sense to raise money because we expect to generate cash despite this growth level.”
Kirkhorn added to Musk’s comments noting that the company had laid a good foundation and was not holding back on growth.
“We have two products, two vehicle products launching right now and that will consume much of the bandwidth of the company to stabilize those over the course of the year,” Kirkhorn said. “And then looking into next year, we have even more products launching, more factories. So we want to be smart about how we spend money and grow in a way that’s sustainable. So we don’t fall victim to the mistakes I think we made a year and a half or so ago.”
However, Tesla shares have risen more than 35% since the January 29 earnings call, perhaps proving too tempting of an opportunity to ignore.
This latest stock raise could prove critical to fund Tesla’s number of projects. A regulatory filing posted prior to the stock offering notice indicates Tesla’s capital expenditures could reach as high as $3.5 billion this year.
“Considering the expected pace of the manufacturing ramps for our products, construction and expansion of our factories, and pipeline of announced projects under development, and consistent with our current strategy of using partners to manufacture battery cells, as well as considering all other infrastructure growth, we currently expect our average annual capital expenditures in 2020 and the two succeeding fiscal years to be $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion,” Tesla said in its 10K filing, which was posted Thursday.
VC firm TLcom Capital has closed its Tide Africa Fund at $71 million with plans to make up to 12 startup investments over the next 18 months.
“We’re rather sector agnostic, but right now we are looking at companies that are more infrastructure type tech rather than super commoditized things like consumer lending,” he told TechCrunch on a call.
On geographic scope, TLcom Capital will focus primarily on startups in Africa’s big-three tech hubs — Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa — but is also eyeing rising markets, such as Ethiopia.
Part of the fund’s investment approach, according to Caio, is backing viable companies with strong founders and then staying out of the way.
“We are venture capitalists that believe in looking at Africa as an investment opportunity that empowers local entrepreneurs without…coming in and explaining what to do,” said Caio.
TLcom’s team includes Caio (who’s Italian), partners Ido Sum and Andreata Muforo (from Zimbabwe) and senior partner Omobola Johnson, the former Minister of Communication Technology in Nigeria.
Speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in 2018, Johnson offered perspective on next startups in Africa that could reach billion-dollar valuations. “When I look at the African market I suspect it’s going to be a company that’s very much focused on business to business and business to very small business — a company that can that can solve their challenges,” she said.
TLcom’s current Africa portfolio reflects startups similar to what Johnson described. The fund has invested in Nigerian trucking logistics venture Kobo360, which is working to reduce business delivery costs in Africa.
Both of these companies have gone on to expand in Africa and receive subsequent investment by U.S. investment bank, Goldman Sachs .
The firm’s close of the $71 million Tide Africa Fund comes on the high-end of a several-year mobilization of capital for the continent’s startup scene. Investment shops specifically focused on Africa have been on the rise. A TechCrunch and Crunchbase study in 2018 tracked 51 viable Africa specific VC funds globally, TLcom included.
This trend has moved in tandem with a quadrupling of venture funding for the continent over the past six years. Accurately measuring VC for Africa is a work in progress, but one of the earlier reliable estimates placed it at just over $400 million in 2014. Recent stats released by Partech peg Africa focused VC funding at over $2 billion for 2019.
TLcom’s listed in a number of the larger rounds that made up Partech’s tally.
The fund’s latest $71 million raise, which included support from Sango Capital and IFC, reversed the roles a bit for TLcom founder Maurizio Caio.
The VC principal — who usually gets pitches from African startups — needed to sell the value of African tech to other investors.
“It’s been tough to raise the fund, there’s no doubt about it,” Caio said. TLcom highlighted its past exit record and the viability of the African market and founders to bring investors on board.
“We had the advantage of showing some good exits…The emphasis was also on the gigantic size of these markets that are underserved, the role that technology can play, and the fact that the entrepreneurs in Africa are just as good as anywhere else,” said Caio.
He also referenced African startups being constrained by the social impact factors often placed on them from outside investors.
“The equation is not just about ensuring employment and inclusion, but also about the fact that African entrepreneurs have to be in charge of their own destiny without instructions from the West,” he said.
For those startups who wish to pitch to TLcom Capital, Caio encouraged founders to contact one of the fund’s partners and share a value proposition. “If it’s something we find vaguely interesting, we’ll make a decision,” he said.
This is it, startup fans. It’s your very last chance to scoop up the few remaining tickets to our 3rd Annual Winter Party at Galvanize — the best Silicon Valley startup soiree, bar none. If you want to join this fun gathering of 1,000+ like-minded startuppers on February 7, you’d best act quickly. Exhibitor tables have long sold out. Don’t get left behind — buy your ticket now before they’re gone for good.
A big shout out to our sponsors Calgary, Uncork Capital, Brex, Galvanize and Snap Fiesta for helping us throw this bash. You’re in for an unabashed night of fabulous food, delicious drinks and festive foolishness. Time to loosen your collar and network in a relaxed setting with some of the Valley’s brightest entrepreneurs, founders and investors — attendees span the entire startup ecosystem.
You never know when a casual conversation could develop into a serious opportunity, and TechCrunch parties have a strong track record for making startup magic.
Here are just five of the many companies with whom you can meet and greet — talk about an opportunity to connect: Deloitte, Perkins Coie, Ceres Robotics, Samsung, Okta, Facebook. And while you’re at it, don’t miss meeting the 10 outstanding startups that will exhibit their tech and talent. More connections equal more opportunity.
Here’s the essential 411 on the party details:
As always, you’ll find plenty of fun. Bust out your karaoke skills, play games, and plenty of photo ops will let you light up your Insta. You might even win one of the many door prizes, including TC swag and free passes to Disrupt SF in September 2020.
Scopely, the massively funded mobile game publisher, has made good on its promise to start buying up more properties with the treasure chest it amassed in a whopping $200 million round last year.
The target this time is Walt Disney Company’s FoxNext Games Los Angeles and Cold Iron Studios. Disney picked up Fox’s game division in the huge $71.3 billion deal which merged the two entertainment powerhouses in 2019.
There’s no word on how much Scopely spent on the deal, but the company is quickly becoming one of LA’s biggest mobile game studios, joining the ranks of companies like Jam City as mega-players in the mobile games ecosystem emerging in Los Angeles.
The city has long been home to game development talent including Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, and others.
FoxNext is already the home of the popular “Marvel Strike Force” game and is developing “Avatar: Pandora Rising”, which is a multiplayer strategy game based on the James Cameron blockbuster, “Avatar”.
The portfolio doesn’t include the Fox IP licensed game titles, which will continue to live under Disney’s licensed game business.
“We have been hugely impressed with the incredible game the team at FoxNext Games has built with MARVEL Strike Force and can’t wait to see what more we can do together,” said Tim O’Brien, Chief Revenue Officer at Scopely, in a statement. “In addition to successfully growing our existing business, we have been bullish on further expanding our portfolio through M&A, and FoxNext Games’ player-first product approach aligns perfectly with our focus on delivering unforgettable game experiences. We are thrilled to combine forces with their world-class team and look forward to a big future together.”
As a result of the acquisition, FoxNext’s President, Aaron Loeb will join Scopely in a newly created executive role, according to the company. Meanwhile, Amir Rahimi, FoxNext’s senior vice president will become assume the mantle of President, Games at FoxNext Games Los Angeles studio, the company said.
Last year, Scopely hit $1 billion in lifetime revenue and recently bought the DIGIT Game Studios to further expand its footprint in Europe and across North America.
Descartes Labs, a well–funded startup based in New Mexico, provides businesses with geospatial data and the tools to analyze it in order to make business decisions. Today, the company announced the launch of its Descartes Labs Platform, which promises to bring its data together with all of the tools data scientists — including those with no background in analyzing this kind of information — would need to work with these images to analyze them and build machine learning models based on the data in them.
Descartes Labs CEO Phil Fraher, who took this position only a few months ago, told me that the company’s current business often includes a lot of consulting work to get its customers started. These customers span the range from energy and mining companies to government agencies, financial services and agriculture businesses, but many don’t have the in-house expertise to immediately make use of the data that Descartes Labs provides them with.
“For the most part, we still have to evangelize how to use geospatial data to solve business problems. And so a lot of our customers rely on us to do consulting,” Fraher said. “But what’s really interesting is that even with some of our existing customers, we’re now seeing more early adopters, more business and analysis teams and data scientists being hired, that do focus on geospatial data. So what’s really exciting with this launch is we’re now going to put our platform tool in the hands of those particular individuals that now can do their own work.”
In many ways, this new platform gives these customers access to the tools and data that Descartes Labs’ own team uses and allows them to collaborate with the company to solve their problems and use the new modeling tools to build solutions for their individual businesses.
“Previously, a data science team that at a company that’s interested in this kind of analysis would also have to know how to wrangle very large-scale or petabyte-scale Earth observation data sets,” Fraher said. “These are very unique and specific skillsets and because of that kind of barrier to entry, the adoption of some of this technology and data sources has been slow.”
To enable more businesses to get started with working with this data (and become Descartes Labs customers), the company is betting on the standard tools in the industry, with hosted Jupyter notebooks, Python support and a set of APIs. It also includes tools to transform ad clean the incoming data from Descartes’ third-party partners in order to make it usable for data scientists.
“it’s not just like some simple ETL-like data processing pipeline,” Descartes Labs’ Head of Engineering Sam Skillman noted. “It’s something where we have to combine very in-depth data science, remote sensing and large scale compute capabilities to bring all of that data in in a way that normalizes it and gets it ready for analysis.”
All of this analysis is handled in the cloud, with AWS being Descartes Labs cloud of choice.
The new platform is now available to businesses that want to give it a try.
The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.
The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.
That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.
Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.
“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.
Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.
Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.
Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.
African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s startups, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.
That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.
The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.
Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.
Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale finance solutions on the continent.
Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech related startups on the continent.
This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.
For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation
“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.
This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.
More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts any of its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets like Nigeria, India and Mexico.
Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.
Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.
If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at firstname.lastname@example.org or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.
Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:
Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.
The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.
Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.
TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.
Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.
Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.
Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.
Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.
Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.
Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.
Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.
This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.
If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs
The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.
One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.
In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.
Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.
And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.
Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.
To kick off 2020, one of Europe’s newer — and more successful — investment firms has closed a fresh, oversubscribed fund, one sign that VC in the region will continue to run strong in the year ahead after startups across Europe raised between $35 billion and $36 billion in 2019.
Felix Capital, the London VC founded by Frederic Court that was one of the earlier firms to identify and invest in the trend of direct-to-consumer businesses, has raised $300 million, money that it plans to use to continue investing in creative and consumer startups and platform plays as well as begin to tap into a newer area, fintech — specifically startups that are focused on consumer finance.
Felix up to now has focused mostly on earlier-stage investments — it now has $600 million under management and 32 companies in its portfolio in eight countries — based across both Europe and the US. Court said in an interview that a portion of this fund will now also go into later, growth rounds, both for companies that Felix has been backing for some time as well as newer faces.
As with the focus of the investments, the make-up of the fund itself has a strong European current: the majority of the LPs are European, Court noted. Although Asia is something it would like to tackle more in the future both as a market for its current portfolio and as an investment opportunity, he added, the firm has yet to invest into the region or substantially raise money from it.
Felix made its debut in 2015, founded by Court after a strong run at Advent Capital where he was involved in a number of big exits. While Court had been a strong player in enterprise software, Felix was a step-change for him into more of a primary focus on consumer startups focused on fashion, lifestyle and creative pursuits.
That has over the years included investing in companies like the breakout high-fashion marketplace Farfetch (which he started to back when still at Advent and is now public), Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP, the jewellery startup Mejuri, trend-watching HighSnobiety, and fitness startup Peloton (which has also IPO’d).
It’s not an altogether easygoing, vanilla list of cool stuff. Peloton and GOOP have had been mightily doused in snarky and sharky sentiments; and sometimes it even seems as if the brands themselves own and cultivate that image. As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad press, I guess.
Although it wasn’t something especially articulated in startup land at the time of Felix’s launch, what the firm was honing in on was a rising category of direct-to-consumer startups, essentially all in the area of e-commerce and building brands and businesses that were bypassing traditional retailers and retail channels to develop primary relationships with consumers through newer digital channels such as social media, messaging and email (alongside their own DTC websites).
This is not Felix’s sole focus, with investments into a range of platform businesses like corporate travel site TravelPerk, Amazon -backed food delivery juggernaut Deliveroo and Moonbug (a platform for children’s entertainment content); and increasingly later stage rounds (for example it was part of a $104 million round at TravelPerk; a $70 million round for marketplace-building service Mirakl; and $23 million for Mejuri.
Court’s track record prior to Felix, and the success of the current firm to date, are two likely reasons why this latest fund was oversubscribed, and why Court says it wants to further spread its wings into a wider range of areas and investment stages.
The interest in consumer finance is not such a large step away from these areas, when you consider that they are just the other side of the coin from e-commerce: saving money versus spending money.
“We see this as our prism of opportunity,” said Court. “Just as we had the intuition that there was a space for investors looking at [DTC]… we now think there is enough evidence that there is demand from consumers for new ways of dealing with money and personal finance.”
The firm has from the start operated with a board of advisors who also invest money through Felix while also holding down day jobs.
They include the likes of executives from eBay, Facebook, and more. David Marcus –who Court backed when he built payments company Zong and eventually sold it to eBay before he went on to become a major mover and shaker at Facebook and is now has the possibly Sisyphean task of building Calibra — is on the list, but that has not translated into Felix dabbling in cryptocurrency.
“We are watching cryptocurrency, but if you take a Felix stance on the area, it’s only had one amazing brand so far, bitcoin,” said Court. “The rest, for a consumer, is very difficult to understand and access. It’s still really early, but I’ve got no doubt that there will be some things emerging, particularly around the idea of ‘invisible money.'”
Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.
San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.
In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.
Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.
Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.
Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.
Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global, Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.
A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.
There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.
Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017
Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.
“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”
Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.
Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.
Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.
There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.
2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.
A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.
The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.
Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.
The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange — which brought its own unpredictability.
Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.
With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.
Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.
The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.
That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left, whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out across Africa’s tech ecosystem on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.
The entire affair was further complicated by Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.
Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.
Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).
The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.
There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress.
Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020. The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa.
Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.
“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch .
2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.
That was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.
July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.
In September, China’s Transsion — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.
The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”
In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s engagement with Africa.
On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.
Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.
A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.
From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and Africa expansion strategies.
The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operating there. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.
When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up fintech stats for Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared.
Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.
The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated the standing of CcHub’s Bosun Tijani across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.
CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani
In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.
Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries in the world (by production volume). Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.
Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of ISP Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.
In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.
Ampersand in Rwanda
A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.
A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.
The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.
In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.
The past year saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop spearheaded Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.
Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.
Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.
Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.
Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.
And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.
2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.
In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to expand globally.
As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.
All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.
There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.
Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).
I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).
On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt 21st century dynamics in Africa around politics, power, and philanthropy — hopefully for the better.
More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch
Indian tech startups have never had it so good.
Local tech startups in the nation raised $14.5 billion in 2019, beating their previous best of $10.6 billion last year, according to research firm Tracxn .
Tech startups in India this year participated in 1,185 financing rounds — 459 of those were Series A or later rounds — from 817 investors.
Early-stage startups — those participating in angel or pre-Series A financing round — raised $6.9 billion this year, easily surpassing last year’s $3.3 billion figure, according to a report by venture debt firm InnoVen Capital.
According to InnoVen’s report, early-stage startups that have typically struggled to attract investors saw a 22% year-over-year increase in the number of financing deals they took part in this year. Cumulatively, at $2.6 million, their valuation also increased by 15% from last year.
Overall, there were 81 financing deals of size between $25 million and $100 million, up from 56 last year and 36 the year before, and 27 rounds above $100 million, up from 17 in 2018 and and nine in 2017, Tracxn told TechCrunch.
Also in 2019, 128 startups in India got acquired, four got publicly listed and nine became unicorns. This year, Indian tech startups also attracted a record number of international investors, according to Tracxn.
This year’s fundraise further moves the nation’s burgeoning startup space on a path of steady growth.
Since 2016, when tech startups accumulated just $4.3 billion — down from $7.9 billion the year before — flow of capital has increased significantly in the ecosystem. In 2017, Indian startups raised $10.4 billion, per Tracxn.
“The decade has seen an impressive 25x growth from a tiny $550 million in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2019 in terms of the total funding raised by the startups,” said Tracxn.
What’s equally promising about Indian startups is the challenges they are beginning to tackle today, said Dev Khare, a partner at VC fund Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a recent interview with TechCrunch.
In 2014 and 2015, startups were largely focused on building e-commerce solutions and replicating ideas that worked in Western markets. But today, they are tackling a wide-range of categories and opportunities and building some solutions that have not been attempted in any other market, he said.
Tracxn’s analysis found that lodging startups raised about $1.7 billion this year — thanks to Oyo alone bagging $1.5 billion, followed by logistics startups such as Elastic Run, Delhivery and Ecom Express that secured $641 million.
Also, 176 horizontal marketplaces, more than 150 education learning apps, over 160 fintech startups, over 120 trucking marketplaces, 82 ride-hailing services, 42 insurance platforms, 33 used car listing providers and 13 startups that are helping businesses and individuals access working capital secured funding this year. Fintech startups alone raised $3.2 billion this year, more than startups operating in any other category, said Tracxn.
Sequoia Capital, with more than 50 investments — or co-investments — was the most active venture capital fund for Indian tech startups this year. (Rajan Anandan, former executive in charge of Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia, joined Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April.) Accel, Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures and Chiratae Ventures were the other top four VCs.
Steadview Capital, with nine investments in startups, including ride-hailing service Ola, education app Unacademy and fintech startup BharatPe, led the way among private equity funds. General Atlantic, which invested in NoBroker and recently turned profitable edtech startup Byju’s, invested in four startups. FMO, Sabre Partners India and CDC Group each invested in three startups.
Venture Catalysts, with more than 40 investments, including in HomeCapital and Blowhorn, was the top accelerator or incubator in India this year. Y Combinator, with over 25 investments, Sequoia Capital’s Surge, Axilor Ventures and Techstars were also very active this year.
Indian tech startups also attracted a number of direct investments from top corporates and banks this year. Goldman Sachs, which earlier this month invested in fintech startup ZestMoney, overall made eight investments this year. Among others, Facebook made its first investment in an Indian startup — social-commerce firm Meesho — and Twitter led a $100 million financing round in local social networking app ShareChat.
It’s been less than two years since WeWork announced the acquisition of SEO and content marketing company Conductor — but those two years have been bumpy, to say the least.
Briefly: Parent organization The We Company’s disastrous attempt to go public resulted in the ouster of CEO Adam Neumann, an indefinite delay of its IPO and reports that the company was weighing the sale of subsidiaries Meetup, Managed by Q and Conductor.
So it’s no surprise that Conductor is, in fact, being sold — not to another company, but to its own CEO and co-founder Seth Besmertnik, COO Selina Eizik and investor Jason Finger (managing partner of The Finger Group and founder of Seamless).
“We’re grateful for our time with WeWork, during which we’ve been able to invest aggressively in R&D, doubling the size of our team with world-class talent that helps our customers achieve success everyday,” Besmertnik said in a statement. “People don’t want to be advertised to or sold to anymore. Our solutions make it easier for brands to deliver marketing that is helpful and valuable. It’s marketing that consumers actually seek out.”
The company also says that Conductor’s employees will be given a new category of stock that they’re calling founder-preferred shares, turning them into “250 employee co-founders” who can appoint a representative to the board of directors. This should give them a bigger stake and a bigger say in where Conductor goes from here.
In fact, Besmertnik noted that pre-acquisition, the Conductor team (including himself) owned less than 10% of the company, while under the new structure, employees will own “more than four times what they did when we sold the company” — and combined with Besmertnik and Eizik’s shares, they have a majority stake in the company.
“Our ownership model is going to really create an even more committed and even more passionate group of people as we apply that to our mission and vision,” he told me.
Conductor started out with a focus on helping marketers optimize their websites for search, then expanded with tools for creating the content that’s being found through search. Since its acquisition, the company has operated as a WeWork subsidiary, and it’s currently working with more than 400 enterprises including Visa, Casper and Slack.
The financial terms were not disclosed, but Conductor says that as a result of the deal, it’s fully divested from The We Company.
GetYourGuide has made a name for itself as the startup that helped the stale idea of guided tours for travellers on its head. Tapping into the generation of consumers who think of travel not just as going somewhere, but having an “experience” (and, ideally, recording it for Insta-posterity), it has built a marketplace to connect them with people who will help guarantee that this is what they will get. It’s a concept that has helped it sell more than 25 million tickets, hit a $1 billion valuation, and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in VC funding.
And the startup has grown quite a lot since passing the 25 million mark in May. “We’ve had 40 million travelers over the last 12 months. We’re the market leader in every European geography. We’re #2 in the U.S. and about to become #1,” co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck said at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.
Now GetYourGuide is taking the next step in its strategy to expand its touchpoints with users, and grow and diversify its business in the process. The company is expanding its “Originals” business — its own in-house tour operation — into one-day tours and other longer journeys, with the aim of hitting 1 million sales of Originals this year. It will kick off the effort with a small number — between five and 10 — one-day tours in different exotic locations. Examples will include “dune-bashing in Dubai,” glacier excursions from Reykjavik, and trips to Bali’s “most instagrammable hidden spots.”
GetYourGuide Originals have been working well. “We’ve had tremendous success, we have an average score of 4.8 [out of 5] compared to 4.4 for the other marketplace activities,” Reck said. Originals have a 40% higher repeat rate than other activities.
“And we’re now extending it to day trips. For those who are not familiar with the travel experience, day trip is the single biggest vertical inside of experiences,” Reck said.
Originals was launched a year and a half ago as a way for GetYourGuide to build its own tours — which it kicked off first with shorter walking tours — as a complement to the marketplace where it offers travellers a way of discovering and purchasing places on tours organised by third parties. Today it offers 23 different Originals in 17 cities like Paris, London, Berlin and Rome.
Up to now, GYG has sold some 200,000 places on its Originals tours — which is actually a tiny proportion of business, when you consider that the number of tours booked through the platform has passed 25 million.
The startup likes to describe its own Orignals as “like Netflix Originals, but in the real world!” And that analogy is true in a couple of ways. Not only does it give GYG more curatorial control on what is actually part of the tour, where it’s run, who guides it and more; but it gives the company potentially a bigger margin when it comes to making money off the effort, and means it does not have to negotiate with third parties on revenue share and other business details.
That’s, of course, not considering the challenges of scaling in this way.
Adding in more Originals and extending to transportation to get to the destination (and potentially staying overnight at some point) will mean taking on costs and organizational efforts, and risks, around more operational segments: making sure vehicles are safe and working, that hotels have clean sheets (and rooms), and more. More things can go wrong, and customers will have many more reasons to complain (or praise). It will be one of those moments when the startup will have to rethink what it’s core competency is, and whether it can deliver on that.
On the other side, if it works, GYG will diversify its the business while finding new revenue streams. But the strategy to grow Originals is a logical next step for other reasons, too.
The most important of these is probably competition: GYG may have been the pioneer of hipster travel experiences, but today it is by no means the only company focusing on this segment. Companies like Airbnb and TripAdvisor have tacked on tours and “Experiences” as a complement to their own offerings, as ways of extending their own consumer touchpoints beyond, respectively, booking a place to say or finding a cool place that popular with locals, or figure out what attractions to see.
Get Your Guide needs to find ways of keeping existing and new users returning to its own platform, rather than simply tacking on its tour packages while organising other aspects of their vacation.
The other is that, as Get Your Guide continues to break ground on changing the conversation around travel, building its own content rather than relying on others to fulfil its vision will become ever more essential, and paves the way for how the company will approach adding ever more components into the chain between your home and your destination.
A startup that’s built cross-channel growth marketing platform — used by businesses to capture customers across whatever digital media they happen to be using — is today announcing funding to do some growing of its own. Iterable — which uses email, push and in-app notifications, SMS and other sources to interact with users and deliver them targeted, personalised marketing messages — has closed another $60 million in funding, a Series D that it’s going to use to continue scaling its business into more markets (it’s recently expanded in Europe with a London office), and with more hiring.
“This is about being prepared because of the uncertainty in the wider market,” said co-founder and CEO Justin Zhu said in an interview. “We are not sure what might happen next year.” The bigger trend in marketing tech is around consolidation and the building of “marketing clouds” by large players like Adobe and Salesforce, so it’s notable that Zhu said that while Iterable is continuing to grow — it has the startup’s focus will be on remaining independent and turning profitable.
“It’s about getting to breakeven and then beyond that,” he said.
This latest round, a Series D, is being led by Viking Global Investors — the huge investment firm and hedge fund that has backed the likes of Facebook and security firm Druva, but also a range of biotech and pharma companies — with participation from previous investors CRV, Index Ventures, Blue Cloud Ventures, Harmony Partners, and Stereo Capital.
The company has now raised $140 million in total. Zhu described the valuation as a “very healthy increase,” and while he is not talking specific numbers, Iterable’s Series C came in at $275 million post-money, according to PitchBook, which makes this latest round definitely higher than $325 million. (We’ll keep trying to get a more specific number.)
A lot of marketing startups have their beginnings in the world of — no surprises here — marketing, which is to say that of the people who have had direct experience in dealing with the pain points of how legacy marketing products work, some of the more enterprising go on to found companies to try to solve those problems.
Iterable has a bit of a different origin story in that its founders come from technical backgrounds. Zhu co-founded Iterable with Andrew Boni six years ago, but before then, both of them cut their teeth as engineers, at Twitter and Google respectively (and they are both young: they started the company while in their twenties, and this is only Zhu’s second job out of university).
It was at Twitter that Zhu identified a gap between the amount of data that a company has on users, and how it’s not used as well as it could be to grow that company’s business, especially when that business is not already a tech company — and sometimes, even when it is: Twitter has yet to sign on as an Iterable customer, but Square, the other business led by Jack Dorsey, is.
“There are a lot of great ideas and things that became experiments at Twitter,” he said, “but I noticed that only a very few companies — the biggest, most qualified technology companies — could execute a variety of different growth marketing efforts. Many most likely don’t have the right people or experience.” As Zhu describes it, there are not that enough people building significant innovations in how marketing works, because they lack the technical chops to do so (they instead come from development and marketing backgrounds).
That challenge further has become a little more complicated in more recent times, for another reason, which is that we’re in a moment where it feels like marketing is the bad guy. The rise of stronger data protection and privacy rules, for example with GDPR in Europe, plus consumers’ wider awareness and subsequent have led to a collective rejection of too much tracking of their online activity.
The idea with Iterable — as its name implies — is that you’re given a platform to iterate, to try out lots of different approaches across a range of different platforms, leveraging data that you already have and can use, or that you are able to get from users as part of the campaign, to build out your relationships and engagement, to see what works and what definitely does not.
This can either be to bring in more eyeballs and visitors (in the case of a company that, say, offers ‘free’ services and makes money on advertising), or more straight sales by way of offering discounts, insights on offers for things you might want or other incentives to buy things.
The company’s customer list includes companies like Zillow, Priceline Care.com and Fender, which speaks to how it targets companies that span not those who are digitally native businesses (but not necessarily the newest of the pack), but also those that are legacy companies that need to figure out how to leverage digital channels better to continue connecting with more, newer, and younger audiences.
There are upwards of 7,000 companies in the wider space of marketing technology today, Zhu estimates, which speaks to just how much more activity we’re likely to see in this area: the big fish will eat the tastiest smaller fish, while other fish will not manage to grow and will disappear.
But equally, we’re also seeing an interesting evolution, where paths are emerging for the most promising of the lot to carve out independent places for their particular services, independent of the biggies (en route to becoming biggies themselves, perhaps). For example, the data warehousing startup Snowflake — covering one of the big components that martech efforts need to work — is now valued at around $4 billion and is showing no signs of slowing down.
That’s a path that Iterable wants to follow, too, with this round to help it get there.
We live in the world of ‘best of breed’ coming together, which for us is about partnering with the best analytics and data warehousing companies,” Zhu said. “There are many options today that don’t entail getting acquired by a bigger player.”
Tesla has received 146,000 reservations to order the Tesla Cybertruck, pulling in some $14.6 million in deposits just two days after the company’s CEO Elon Musk unveiled the futuristic and angled vehicle.
Reservations require a $100 refundable deposit. How many of those deposits will convert to actual orders for the truck, which is currently priced between $39,900 and $69,900, is impossible to predict. And there will likely be plenty of speculation over the next two years. Production of the tri-motor variant of the cybertruck is expected to begin in late 2022, Tesla said.
Musk tweeted Saturday that 146,000 Cybertruck orders have been made so far. Of those, 41% picked the most expensive tri-motor option and 42% of future customers chose the dual motor version. The remaining 17% picked the cheapest single-motor model.
146k Cybertruck orders so far, with 42% choosing dual, 41% tri & 17% single motor
The Tesla Cybertruck, which Musk unveiled in dramatic fashion at the Tesla Design Center in Hawthorne, Calif., has been polarizing with skeptics heaping on the criticism and supporters pushing back in kind. Even Tesla fans at the Cybertruck event, which TechCrunch attended, seemed torn with some praising it and others wishing Musk had created something a bit more conventional.
The vehicle made of cold-rolled steel and features armored glass that cracked in one demonstration and an adaptive air suspension.
Tesla said it will offer three variants of the cybertruck. The cheapest version, a single motor and rear-wheel drive model, will cost $39,900, have a towing capacity of 7,500 pounds and more than 250 miles of range. The middle version will be a dual-motor all-wheel drive, have a towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds and be able to travel more than 300 miles on a single charge. The dual motor AWD model is priced at $49,900.
The third version will have three electric motors and all-wheel drive, a towing capacity of 14,000 pounds and battery range of more than 500 miles. This version, known as “tri motor,” is priced at $69,900.
Last week, at a StrictlyVC event in San Francisco, we sat down with Maryanna Saenko and Steve Jurvetson, investors who came together to create the investment outfit Future Ventures roughly one year ago. It was their first public appearance together since announcing their $200 million fund, and we started by asking Jurvetson about his high-profile transition out of his old firm DFJ. (He said of the experience that “sometimes life forces a dislocation in what you’re doing, and it got me to become an entrepreneur for the first time in a long time.”)
We also talked about how the two came together and where they’re shopping, as they have fewer constraints than most firms. It was a wide-ranging chat that covered SpaceX and to a lesser extent Tesla, whose boards of directors Jurvetson sits on. We also talked about The Boring Company, in which Future Ventures has a stake, the profound dangers of the AI race between companies (and countries), and whether the powerful psychedelic ayahuasca — or something like it — might represent an investment opportunity. Included in the mix was what Jurvetson described as potentially the “biggest money-making opportunity” he has “ever seen.”
Read on to learn more. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length.
You’ve come together to build this new fund that has a 15-year investing horizon. Your interests overlap quite a bit. Maryanna, you’re a robotics expert with degrees from Carnegie Mellon; you were with Airbus Ventures before joining DFJ then heading later to Khosla Ventures. Who is better at what?
SJ: She’s better at everything, is the answer, but I think we’re better as a pair. The beauty of small team is you’re better than you would be on your own. I knew when I set off that I didn’t want to do it alone. I know that the people I’ve worked with over the last 20 years have made me better. The best investments I did at DFJ I largely attribute to the junior partner I was working with at the time, and I might not have done those best deals if I was on my own.
There’s something about the dialectic, the discussion, the debates with someone you respect whose opinion is valuable, so rather than thinking, ‘You handle this, I’ll handle that’ and partitioning it, it’s more of a [back and forth]. So we have partner meetings all the time, just not any scheduled meetings.
Certainly, Maryanna’s deep background in robotics is a vein of interest, as is all the aerospace stuff. But just a reminder, when I first interviewed her [Jurvetson originally hired her at DFJ], I was blown away that she had already invested in several of the quirky sectors from quantum computer to phasor antennas for satellites to [inaudible but relating to space].
Of course you would be investing [in this thing I’ve never heard of before].
MS: It’s going to become relevant, I promise.
Speaking of aerospace, you two have invested in SpaceX, a company that DFJ had also backed. Is this company ever going to go public?
SJ: I think the official last tweet on this matter was that the company will go public after there are regularly scheduled flights to Mars.
Which is when?
SJ: It might not be that far off. Probably within the 15-year [investing] cycle that we have now. Clearly the business is much more dramatic than just that. That’s the big storm on the horizon [that captures a lot of interest] but in the near term, there are multiple billions of dollars in revenue. They’re a profitable business. And frankly, they’re about to launch what may be the biggest money-making opportunity I’ve ever seen in my life, which is the broadband satellite data business [Starlink, which is a constellation being constructed by SpaceX to provide satellite Internet access].
So there’s plenty of good stuff happening before we get to Mars. That was just a way to put all the investment bankers off. They’re continuously hounding the company, ‘When are you going public? When are you going public?’
It is 17 years old. Have you made money off it [as an investor] thus far?
SJ: Oh, yeah, at our prior firm, they’ve [enjoyed] well over $1 billion in profit [through secondary sales].
What do you think of scientists’ concerns that these satellites going to ruin astronomy because they’re so bright? I know SpaceX has tried to paint them. I also know SpaceX isn’t alone and that Amazon is also trying to put up a constellation, for example. But you’re a mission-driven firm. Should we be worried that we’re littering the sky with these things?
MS: One of the fundamental questions when you invest in technology is what are the second-order effects that we’re aware of and what are the second-order effects that we’re not clever enough to foresee ahead of time [and] to look holistically at these problems.
So first and foremost, right, it’s not just Space X. Many companies these days are trying to put up a constellation whether in [Low Earth Orbit] or [Medium Earth Orbit] or increasingly in [Geostationary Orbit]. We need to think mindfully and work with the scientific communities and say, ‘What are the needs?’ Because the reality is that the communication is going to go up, and if it’s not from U.S. companies, it’ll be from European or from Asian companies. So I think the scientific community needs to wake up, unfortunately, to the reality that the Luddite form of saying, ‘Technology isn’t going up to space’ . . . and they should say say, ‘Here’s a set of metrics that we’d like to continue moving forward with.’
Ideally we can design to those specs. Beyond that, I fundamentally believe we’ll find ways to shine brighter lights and move further [out]. Honestly, most of the interesting imaging happens well past [Low Earth Orbit] and I think when we start building a lunar base, we’ll solve a lot of these problems.
At StrictlyVC’s last event, we played host to a supersonic jet company called Boom. There are a handful of companies with which it competes, too–
MS: Oh, more than [a handful]. If you count just pure electric aircraft companies, I’ve met with 55 of, I would guess, around 200 or 300. Within that, supersonic is smaller, but it’s still in the dozens.
Whoa, that many? Does the world need supersonic jets — again?
MS: [As a] recovering engineer and scientist, the way that I look at the space is does the business model fundamentally [make more sense] than when we tried this the last time in the ’80s. If the answer is, ‘This time, we’re a bunch of clever software kids building an aerospace device and don’t worry about it, we’ll figure out how to build an aircraft,’ I’m going to tell you all the reasons that isn’t necessarily going to work.
I think on the electric aircraft side, we have a bunch of questions to answer about what is the timeline of battery density versus what is a mission profile for these flights that actually makes sense. On the long-range side, we can look at what SpaceX might do with point-to-point capsules. [At the intermediate stage, hypersonic fight], I have not yet seen an engineering trajectory matched with a business model that I think closes in this space, at all, so I’m not sure what the bankers are doing,
SJ: Also, the FAA regulatory cycle is very long. But [in addition to these reasons], our life becomes very simple the moment we know there are 55 to maybe 200 companies in a sector, and this is true for small sat launch or eVTOL aircraft — huge swaths of the landscape. Whenever there’s more than one or two [companies in a space], we don’t even want to meet unless we’re just trying to understand what’s going on. Why would anyone invest in the 130th small sat launch company? We try to look for companies that are unlike anything that’s been seen before at the time.
On that note, there’s only one new company that I know of that’s digging tunnels, Boring Company. It’s another investment of Future Ventures . Did it come with a board seat?
SJ: No. We’re in the first round of investment.
Is this a real company? I’ve read it takes $1 billion to tunnel through a mile.
SJ: It depends where you’re digging. That’s the worst case, but it can be up there, like when Boring Company won this contract in Las Vegas for a very short segment, the competition was bidding like $400 million for just a mile. It was like, really?
If you think about the pattern across aerospace with SpaceX, [the motor] issue with Tesla, and now potentially in construction, fintech, and agriculture, there are industries that haven’t [seen major innovation] in a long time. So the top four companies in America that are digging tunnels all started in the 1800s. That’s an especially long time ago. And the whole point, too, with Boring is switching diesel to electric, to do continuous digging, to reengineer the entire thing with a software and simulation mindset, to dramatically increase the speed and lower the cost. Think two orders of magnitude cheaper at least.
Steve, you’d said once before that in most of the deals you’ve funded across your career, yours was the only check, that there just wasn’t any competition. But more people are focused on the ‘future’ as an investment theme now. Is it harder to find those outliers?
SJ: It’s a little harder. We usually use that as a signal to look to a new market whenever there are multiple checks, When it’s a category, when there are conferences about it, when other venture firms are talking about it, that’s usually a sure-enough sign that we already should have moved on to something else.
MS: The simple reality, too, is the industry is focused on a handful of sectors — enterprise software, consumer internet, and the like — and often there are fantastic funds with one or two edge-case investments, and that’s great, because we love those funds and we want to work with them. But there are very few funds where that trajectory is the straight and narrow of their fundamental thesis.
You raised $200 million for this fund from tech CEOs and hedge funds and VCs; do you have the same constraints that other firms have?
MS: I don’t think we have particularly fine constraints on anything, but we do have the constraint of our own conviction, our word and the quality of our characters, so one of the theses when we raised the fund was that we don’t prey on human frailty, so no addictive substances, no [social media influencers] — and not just because we’re bad at being cool hunters. But that’s not our intention; that’s not what we’re trying to create in the world.
I know you’re interested in AI. What does that mean? Are you funding drug development?
SJ: What have you heard? That’s a really good guess.
There are so many companies — hundreds of them — using AI to try and uncover drug candidates, but they don’t seem to be getting very far or maybe they’re aren’t getting far enough along as fast as I’d expected.
SJ: [We have a related deal in process]. Interestingly, we’ve done ten deals that have closed; we have three more that are in the process, two in the signed term sheet phase. Four are in the area of edge intelligence . . .
MS: I’ll often come at things from how would I build this robot in the world to do some critical task and Steve often looks at it more from the chip and power and processing and how you lay the algorithm onto the silicon. And between those two, we arrive at a really interesting thesis up and down the stack. So we’ve done Mythic, an edge intelligence chip company, but we’ve also looked at this idea that we’re going to send out these AIs into the world but we basically bake them into these edge devices that are terrible [because they don’t work well].
The real issue is an AI that’s getting trained somewhere in some cloud then getting pushed to your edge device and then good luck. But increasingly [we’re thinking] about continuous improvement of those AIs as they’re running in real time and be mindful of how we shuttle the data back to the mother ship data centers to enable that continuous improvement and acceleration of that learning and we have a number of portfolio companies up and down that stack that I’m incredibly excited about.
That all sounds comfortably pedestrian compared to the very big picture, wherein a small group of companies is amassing all the richest data to train AI and are growing more powerful by the day. Steve, you’ve talked about this before, about your concerns that one day there could be very few companies, which would exacerbate income inequality. You said this could be a bigger threat to society than climate change. Do you think these companies — Facebook, Amazon, Google — should be broken up?
SJ: No, I don’t think they should be broken up, but I do think it’s an inexorable trend in the the technology business that there are power laws within firms and between firms . . . If you want to maintain capitalism and democracy, it’s not self-rectifying and it’s only going to get worse. Compared to when we last spoke about this [in 2015], it’s gotten a lot worse. The data concentration, the usage of it.
Think, for example, of SenseTime in China . . . it recognizes faces better than any other algorithm on earth right now . . . So you have the U.S. power laws and power laws between countries as well. That’s just one new pejoration as AI and quantum computing escalates.
So everyone in technology and who invests in it should be thoughtful about what this means and think about entrepreneurial paths to the future we want to live in . . . how we get from here to there is not obvious. The markets [will handle some but not all of these things]. So it’s very worrisome and when I said it’s worst than climate change, I meant it will have more impact on whether humanity makes it through the next 20 years. Climate change [may do us in] 200 years from now but there’s some serious pressing issues over the next 20 years.
And breaking up these companies isn’t part of the solution.
It’s almost like this notion of controlling an AI that’s greater than human intelligence. How would you ever imagine you would control such a thing? How would you even imagine understanding its inner workings? So the notion that through regulation you could break up a natural monopoly when everything that fixes the industry creates a natural monopoly, it’d be like whack-a-mole.
What’s the answer? Looking around the corner, what are you funding that’s going to blow people’s minds? Ayahuasca? Is there a market for that? I know it’s everywhere.
SJ: [Looking shocked.] There are two companies, one we wired funds earlier today and the other is a signed term sheet and they relate to your questions.
MS: We should check if the office is bugged [laughs].
SJ: There’s a lot going on. Curing mental illness. Alternative modalities.
MS: The largest rising global epidemic is depression. Adolescent suicide rates are up 300 percent in the U.S. in the last 10 years. And we don’t have the resources, the skills, the technologies and the licensed therapists available. We know there are medicinal compounds, often from plant vines, that have shown incredible value in addressing treatment-resistant depressions and addiction and abusive substances. And often participation in those things is is a privilege of particular groups in society and so how do we democratize access to mental health.
Wait, I can’t believe I guessed it. You’re investing in an ayahuasca-related startup!?
SJ: It’s close, not exactly. [Laughs.]
Hyundai has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the city of Seoul to begin testing six autonomous vehicles on roads in the Gangnam district beginning next month, BusinessKorea reports. The arrangement specifies that six vehicles will begin testing on 23 roads in December. Looking ahead to 2021, there will be as many as 15 of the cars, which are hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, testing on the roads.
Seoul will provide smart infrastructure to communicate with the vehicles, including connected traffic signals, and will also relay traffic and other info as frequently as every 0.1 seconds to the Hyundai vehicles. That kind of real-time information flow should help considerably with providing the visibility necessary to optimize safe operation of the autonomous test cars. On the Hyundai said, they’ll be sharing information too — providing data around the self-driving test that will be freely available to schools and other organizations looking to test their own self-driving technology within the city.
Together, Seoul and Hyundai hope to use the partnership to build out a world-leading downtown self-driving technology deployment, and to have that evolve into a commercial service, complete with dedicated autonomous vehicle manufacture by 2024.