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Katie Haun on saying yes to Coinbase and where a16z’s crypto fund is placing its bets now

By Connie Loizos

Coinbase, the newly public cryptocurrency exchange, has had it share of ups and downs. Still, the nearly nine-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit got a lot right ahead of its highly successful direct listing this week, including, seemingly, inviting in former federal prosecutor Katie Haun to join its board in 2017.

At the time, Haun had just spent 11 years working for the Justice Department, handling cases relating to violent murders and organized crime and, later, the fast-growing world of cryptocurrencies. In fact, as part of her job, Haun had gotten to know Coinbase and other up-and-coming startups to better understand digital currencies and decentralized systems. Because Haun, who won every case she argued, was ready for a change, when Brian Armstrong reached out about a formal role, she said yes. (A year later, Andreessen Horowitz, which wrote its first check to Coinbase in 2013, separately brought her aboard as the venture firm’s first woman general partner.)

The combination has proved powerful and lucrative. As an independent board member at the outset, Haun was given shares for her service that are reportedly now worth roughly $150 million (a16z’s stake is valued at more than $11 billion). Meanwhile, Haun — who recently renewed her board term — says the company’s most impactful days are still ahead.

We talked yesterday with Haun about Coinbase’s valuation, its evolution from here and her work with a16z’s crypto fund, which she co-leads with longtime general partner and fellow Coinbase board member Chris Dixon, and where the team has likely “seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years,” she said. She also noted that a16z has been pouring the majority of its money into tokens. Our chat has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You were working on these intense cases, including murder trials and at some point, your superiors at the Justice Department offer you the chance to figure out what Bitcoin is all about. How did that lead you to Coinbase?

KH: I actually came to know Coinbase through some of the work I was doing on crypto cases in the government in the early days, I founded the U.S. government’s first cryptocurrency task force out of the Justice Department and part of our job was to go meet with companies or entrepreneurs in the space and get to know what they were up to and how we could work with them. Of course, as with any industry, the government’s objectives didn’t always align with the crypto industry’s. But sometimes there were synergies [and] sometimes they might need to reach someone in the government at one of these companies. Coinbase was not the only crypto company that I was interfacing with in those government days. There were many others. But that’s how I first came to know it.

TC: Because not everyone is going to know the specifics of your career, you played a role in prosecuting Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and also discovering two corrupt federal agents involved in that case. Is that right?

KH: I actually did not prosecute Ross Brecht, I did not prosecute the Silk Road case. What I did prosecute is what we’ll call the twist to the Silk Road case, and that was that a couple of the agents on one of the task forces that was investigating Ross Ulbricht and the Silk Road actually turned out to be double agents working both against the government while being federal agents. When I [first received] a tip that we had a rogue federal agent, I thought it was a conspiracy theory. So I thought I would go look into that, mostly to just clear this individual’s name.

TC: Was this a career federal employee?

KH: Yes, this was a federal agent for well over a decade, and it turned out there were two, and they weren’t working together–

TC: Which is even weirder!

KH: Right? The other one was also a career federal agent, which is extremely rare. It happens on TV, where you have corrupt police or law enforcement. But I can tell you that in reality, having been a federal prosecutor for over a decade, this was certainly a first for me. And so I looked into the high level, and what we found was that, let’s just say hundreds of thousands of dollars at the time — now it would be tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars at today’s prices of cryptocurrency — moving around. When we looked into it initially, we thought it must just be some poorly backstopped undercover operation. But the more we looked at it, that transfer patterns were not making sense, and they turned out to be going to personal accounts, which then really piqued our interest.

[In fact] companies like Coinbase [and] other exchanges that kept compliant records were instrumental to our ability to solve that case because of the information that we were getting from those exchanges, but also, the blockchain itself. Without the blockchain, I can definitively say we never would have solved that case. Those agents would still be federal agents today. Had they just been using wires or fiat, we would never have been able to solve the case because they were going to financial institutions across the globe and flashing the badge and saying ‘delete these records.’ They could not do that on the blockchain.

TC: In terms of traceability, a16z has investments in some NFT companies, including Dapper Labs, a blockchain company working with the NBA and others to create NFTs, and, more recently, OpenSea, which is itself an NFT marketplace. Can I ask what you think of the potential for people to use NFTs to move money illegally from point A to B? It’s something I wrote about recently. 

KH: Money laundering is something I prosecuted at the Justice Department, I prosecuted one of the largest ever, if not the largest ever, online money laundering case: the case against BTC-E. We also led an investigation into the Mount Gox hack and we harnessed blockchain technology to help solve those cases, ironically.

I did read your article, Connie, and I found it really interesting, because at first I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, NFTs’ and ‘let’s see how could criminals exploit this,’ because the thing about criminal actors is they are often early adopters of new technologies. I’ve said before, they’re beta testers.

I think when you think about money laundering, the thing you have to step back and realize is that 99.9% of money laundering crimes with fiat today succeed, which is staggering. I think there’s this perception out there that ‘Oh, when wires or fiat money or physical goods are used, money launderers can’t do their thing,’ and that’s just completely contrary to reality.

What I would say is that crypto is a step-level function improvement. The reason I say that is because it leaves these what I call digital breadcrumbs in a way that the physical world or you cash, even wires, by the way, though wires are somewhat digital, cash, physical goods don’t quite leave. With NFT’s, I think that ultimately actually it makes it easier for investigators to trace because of those digital breadcrumbs.

TC: Speaking of NFTs and some of your firm’s deals, how would you describe your pacing right now?

KH: We’re deploying currently out of our second crypto fund. And I think it’s really exciting to start seeing a lot of these things work and capture mainstream attention. And just frankly, there’s been a lot of launches also in the last six months. So that’s also been really exciting. So although the pace is definitely frenetic, it’s an incredibly exciting time in the space. Obviously, yesterday was a milestone for Coinbase but also just for the entire crypto ecosystem.

In terms of pace and how many deals we’re seeing, I would say that we’ve seen and done more deals in the last couple months than in the last couple years, and stay tuned for some of our announcements there, because we’ve done a lot in this last quarter and they haven’t all yet been announced. There’s really an explosion of activity in the space.

We’re also doubling down on investments we’ve made years ago. You mentioned Dapper Labs. The Andreessen Horowitz Crypto Funds have invested in Dapper Labs several times over the years, including out of our first crypto fund, so it’s just really exciting to see now all of the progress that team has made.

TC: How does the process of evaluating these crypto deals differ in comparison with traditional startups?

KH: Some categories are the same and some are completely different. One thing we always look for is a founding team  that has a real vision and that can execute; Coinbase is a tremendous case study in that. We also consider the total addressable market. And we look at not just the product and tech but also its defensibility. Could others come along and quickly take over this idea? Those are some of the characteristics that are the same.

What’s different in crypto is first, regulatory and compliance. Have code audits been done, [have] vulnerabilities [been] found? What’s your plan for security, particularly if you’re talking about areas like decentralized finance.

We’re also [focused on] token economics. What we’re investing in at Andreessen Horowitz Crypto now largely is tokens. Because we’re a [registered investment advisor], we have that flexibility. We still think there are plenty of [opportunities] that merit equity investment; Coinbase is a prime example of an equity investment, not a token investment, but we’re increasingly doing a lot in the token space. I would say, the majority of our funds are deployed in tokens. And when you’re talking about tokens, you want to have really thought through token economics at the outset. Has the team set aside enough tokens for the community? Once the protocol is live, what does that look like? Are they going to Airdrop tokens? What’s their go-to-market strategy? Are they incentivizing early employees with tokens? So I would say the token economic model is something that we look at very heavily.

TC: Are you saying that the firm is looking at buying tokens, meaning buying slugs of currency, versus investing in foundational technology?

KH: We see tokens as foundational technology because we see these protocols, in many cases, as foundational technology.

I think what you might be asking me is, are we investing in the tokens versus the equity of a particular company, and the answer is very much yes. I could say the vast majority of our crypto funds are deployed into the tokens themselves, the assets themselves now [including] Bitcoin or Ethereum, for example. Then apart from that, we hold tokens in a number of different protocols that we acquired just through acquiring tokens — not because we owned equity in a company that distributed the tokens.

In some instances, we have owned equity, where a team has then created a token, and we get token rights as part of our original equity investment. But increasingly, what we’re seeing is the ability to just go buy tokens. We can buy them over the counter and we are definitely doing that.

TC: What percentage of the crypto fund’s assets are invested directly in Bitcoin and Ethereum? Is it a sizable percentage?

KH: We’ve never disclosed an actual percentage, but we definitely have a sizable position in both Bitcoin and Ethereum, which I can say because we’ve disclosed that before. So that’s really all I’m comfortable saying.

TC: That Bitcoin is now so valuable has been a boon for Coinbase, which makes most of its revenue off transaction volume. Can you help readers understand how this company is worth $87 billion today? Presumably it won’t be as reliant on those fees going forward (owing to pressure from rival companies).

Sure, it’s definitely true that the company has plans to diversify from just purely transactional revenue, although make no mistake, transactional revenue continues to be an important segment of the business now but also in the future.

However, I think we see diversification away from that in terms of recurring subscriptions or services. The best way to think about Coinbase is that it’s at the ground floor in some ways, because right now you have 56 million people on the Coinbase platform but well over 100 million people around the globe doing things right now with crypto: buying it, selling, even holding crypto assets. And we really see that as the ground floor because we’re seeing projects that are enabling entirely new industries.

Within crypto, we’ve talked about one already: NFTs. There’s [decentralized finance]. But there’s just so much more out there, like digital identity.

One of the things we’ve seen with crypto is that we can’t always predict where those new behaviors or products and services will lead. I mean, when the iPhone came out, did we think that would lead to behaviors like ride hailing, the gig economy, TikTok streaming? One of the things that we see for Coinbase is that it’s very well-positioned — because it’s a crypto first company — to capitalize on all kinds of different behaviors in the crypto economy that we don’t even yet know about.

TC: A lot of wealth was generated inside of Coinbase this week, with presumably a major divide between the haves and have nots. How does a company in this position deal with that issue?

KH: People who are attracted to Coinbase are attracted for a number of reasons. Economics is certainly one of them. But the candidates I see coming through Coinbase, there’s something about the vision that attracts them to the vision of the company and to crypto as a movement and as a technology.

I can also tell you that management team is very much here for the long haul and is very much invested in building the future. At 7:22 a.m. the morning after the offering, [Coinbase sent out an email] saying: “Okay, on to the next thing, let’s keep the focus.” And by the way, the same thing was true when the price of Bitcoin hit $10,000. I just happened to be in the Coinbase offices and the mood was, let’s keep building.

TC: Can you comment on whether Andreessen Horowitz sold part of its shares in this week’s offering and if so, what percentage? I’m assuming that the firm took some money off the table.

KH: Unfortunately, I can’t comment on any of that.

Note: Because a16z is an RIA, Haun made clear during our interview that she wasn’t offering investment advice or directing her statements at any investor or prospective investor in a16z funds.

Persefoni’s carbon accounting platform raises $9.7 million

By Jonathan Shieber

The carbon accounting and management platform Persefoni now has $9.7 million more in funding to support its international expansion, product development, and recruitment efforts.

The round, led by Rice Investment Group with participation from NGP ETP, the electricity, renewable and sustainability-focused investment arm of the oil and gas and power focused investment fund NGP, comes only about six months after the startup’s initial launch in August.

Founded only last January, Persefoni touts its tools to assemble, calculate, manage, and report organizational carbon footprints.

The company’s software promises real time reports on scope 1 through 3 emissions (these are emissions generated by a company’s direct operations, its purchases of power and the emissions of its suppliers).

“On the back of a banner year of net-zero commitments from governments, asset managers, and organizations the world over, we saw the venture and software investor communities wake up to what is the formation of the largest regulatory compliance software market since the introduction of Sarbanes Oxley”, said Kentaro Kawamori, CEO and co-founder of Persefoni, in a statement. “We applaud the efforts of financial regulators around the world who are implementing carbon and climate disclosure requirements. Such regulation is one of the most impactful ways to get companies accounting for, and reducing, their carbon footprint.”

Private equity firms like TPG are signing on to Persefoni’s service and Greg Lyons, a principal at NGP will be taking a seat on the company’s board of directors.

Additional investors in the company include the Carnrite Group and Sallyport Investments.

“Sallyport looks to partner with high-growth companies with an aim of making a meaningful industry impact,” said Doug Foshee, founder and owner of Sallyport Investments, in a statement.

Boosting the company’s environmental, social, and corporate governance bona fides is the addition of Robert G. Eccles, the founding chairman of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, to Persefoni’s board of advisors.

Pale Blue Dot aims to be Europe’s premier early-stage climate investor and has $100 million to prove it

By Jonathan Shieber

When Hampus Jakobsson, Heidi Lindvall, and Joel Larsson, all well-known players in the European venture ecosystem, began talking about their new firm Pale Blue Dot, they began by looking at the problems with venture capital.

For the three entrepreneurs and investors, whose resumes included co-founding companies and accelerators like The Astonishing Tribe (Jakobsson) and Fast Track Malmö (Lindvall and Larsson) and working as a venture partner at BlueYard Capital (Jakobsson again), the problems were clear.

Their first thesis was that all investment funds should be impact funds, and be taking into account ways to effect positive change; their second thesis was that since all funds should be impact funds, what would be their point of differentiation — that is, where could they provide the most impact.

The three young investors hit on climate change as the core mission and ran with it.

As it was closing on €53 million ($63.3 million) last year, the firm also made its first investments in Phytoform, a London headquartered company creating new crops using computational biology and synbio; Patch, a San Francisco-based carbon-offsetting platform that finances both traditional and frontier “carbon sequestration” methods; and 20tree.ai, an Amsterdam-based startup, using machine learning and satellite data to understand trees to lower the risk of forest fires and power outages.

Now they’ve raised another €34 million and seven more investments on their path to doing between 30 and 35 deals.

These investments primarily focus on Europe and include Veat, a European vegetarian prepared meal company; Madefrom, a still-in-stealth company angling to make everyday products more sustainable; HackYourCloset, a clothing rental company leveraging fast fashion to avoid landfilling clothes; Hier, a fresh food delivery service; Cirplus, a marketplace for recycled plastics trading; and Overstory, which aims to prevent wildfires by giving utilities a view into vegetation around their assets. 

The team expects to be primarily focused on Europe, with a few opportunistic investments in the U.S., and intends to invest in companies that are looking to change systems rather than directly affect consumer behavior. For instance, a Pale Blue Dot investment likely wouldn’t include e-commerce filters for more sustainable shopping, but potentially could include investments in sustainable consumer products companies.

The size of the firm’s commitments will range up to €1 million and will look to commit to a lot of investments. That’s by design, said Jakobsson. “Climate is so many different fields that we didn’t want to do 50% of the fund in food or 50% of the fund in materials,” he said. Also, the founders know their skillsets, which are primarily helping early stage entrepreneurs scale and making the right connections to other investors that can add value.

“In every deal we’ve gotten in co-investors that add particular, amazing, value while we still try to be the shepherds and managers and sherpas,” Jakobsson said. “We’re the ones that are going to protect the founder from the hell-rain of investor opinions.”

Another point of differentiation for the firm are its limited partners. Jakobsson said they rejected capital from oil companies in favor of founders and investors from the tech community that could add value. These include Prima Materia, the investment vehicle for Spotify founder Daniel Ek; the founders of Supercell, Zendesk, TransferWise and DeliveryHero are also backing the firm. So too, is Albert Wenger, a managing partner at Union Square Ventures.

The goal, simply, is to be the best early stage climate fund in Europe.

“We want to be the European climate fund,” Lindvall said. “This is where we can make most of the difference.” 

The TechCrunch Survey of Tech Startup Hubs in England and Wales

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the major European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words. For this survey we are interested in startup hubs in England and Wales. (Scotland will follow, and Northern Ireland is here).

So this is your chance to put your cities on the Techcrunch Map!

We’re like to hear from founders and investors. We are particularly interested in hearing from diverse founders and investors. These are our humble suggestions for the cities we’d most like to hear from:

Birmingham
Brighton
Bristol & Bath
Cambridge
Cardiff
Liverpool
Manchester
Newcastle
Oxford
Reading and Thames valley
York

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of the above cities please fill out the survey form here.

The more founders/investors we hear from in a particular city, the more likely it is that city will be featured in TechCrunch.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

Grab a group discount and take your team to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Alexandra Ames

Mobility mavens, June 9 will be here before you know it, and that means it’s time to get your strategy ducks in a row for TC Sessions: Mobility 2021. You want to make the most of your time at this one-day virtual event featuring interactive presentations with the mobility industry’s top movers, shakers and startup dream makers, amirite?

Take your team to increase your ROI. Right now, you can grab a group discount — at the early-bird price — when you buy a block of four or more tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility. Don’t procrastinate. At $70 per pass, you’ll save a couple hundred bucks — but only if you make your purchase by May 5, at 11:59 pm (PT).

Like the old expression says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. You’ll cover more ground and discover more opportunities with your whole team at your side.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 will feature an incredible lineup of speakers, presentations, fireside chats and breakouts all focused on the current and future state of mobility — like EVs, micromobility and smart cities for starters — and the investment trends that influence them all.

Investors like Clara Brenner (Urban Innovation Fund), Quin Garcia (Autotech Ventures) and Rachel Holt (Construct Capital) — all of whom will grace our virtual stage. They’ll have plenty of insight and advice to share, including the challenges that startup founders will face as they break into the transportation arena.

You’ll hear from CEOs like Starship Technologies’ Ahti Heinla. The company’s been busy testing delivery robots in real-world markets. Don’t miss his discussion touching on challenges ranging from technology to red tape and what it might take to make last-mile robotic delivery a mainstream reality.

Taking your team also makes you a highly efficient networking unit. Find ad hoc opportunities in the virtual platform’s chat feature or use CrunchMatch, our AI-powered platform, to zero in on the people best aligned with your business goals. Schedule virtual product demos, pitch investors or recruit new talent.

Here’s what Rachael Wilcox, a creative producer at Volvo Cars, told us about her networking experience at TC Sessions: Mobility 2020:

I didn’t think I’d network on a virtual platform but, it turns out, it’s a lot easier to network with more people. Folks just felt more comfortable reaching out. I had conversations with people I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise, and that was an unexpected benefit.

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 takes place on June 9, but if you want to take your team — and save 25% in the process — it’s now o’clock. Buy your group discount passes before the early-bird price disappears on May 5 at 11:59 pm (PT). Grab your cohort and go!

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

African crypto usage spurs Luno as customers reach 7M

By Tage Kene-Okafor

The crypto industry as a whole has seen a momentous year of growth, heavily spurred on by the entrance of institutional investors adopting bitcoin due to its store of value properties. The 2020 spike bitcoin experienced was also accelerated by its global adoption as the number of global cryptocurrency users surpassed 100 million in Q3 2020.

For Luno, a U.K.-based crypto company founded by Marcus Swanepoel and Timothy Stranex in 2013, it grew to 6 million customers from January 2020 to January 2021. However, that number has since gone up to 7 million. Today the company, headquartered in London, has nearly 400 employees across London, South Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Singapore, with customers in 40 countries globally

According to CEO Swanepoel, Luno’s numbers have been increasing month-on-month over the last seven years. However, this is the first time it is observing an acceleration of this magnitude.

There are a couple of reasons for Luno’s surge in numbers (like any other crypto exchange startup). Generally, despite talks of bitcoin being used in everyday life by crypto enthusiasts and interests from institutional entrants like BNY Mellon, Mastercard and Tesla, it is a long shot before becoming mainstream.

For now, crypto mainly serves investment purposes. This singular factor has particularly made it very popular with Africans — a demographic that has been a major part of Luno’s growth and the huge traction it is witnessing.

Last year, the company surveyed the markets in which it currently operates. It featured 15,000 respondents from South Africa, U.K., France, Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria; the answers helped Luno understand how the pandemic influenced attitudes towards the current financial system. According to the survey, 54% of Africans were ready to adopt a single global digital currency, compared to 41% for Asia and 35% for Europe

Africa’s dominance also shows in its numbers. Out of the 7 million customers it has globally, 4.7 million people are in Africa. This number was 2.3 million in January 2020. Luno’s app installs across the continent have increased by 271% within this time frame, and trading volumes skyrocketed 12x, from $555 million to $7 billion. For context, Luno did $8.3 billion in total trading volume.  

But a large part of this growth is down to Luno’s early play in the market. Over the last few years, infrastructure in parts of the world that could not previously support the crypto market has improved substantially. Luno has played a vital role as one of the first platforms to improve the crypto marketplace experience by including local currencies. It also helped to lay the groundwork for educating people on digital currencies.  

“The last time bitcoin went up as it did during the past year was in 2017 and 2018, and it was mostly driven by retail, but it was still very difficult to buy crypto. There were trust issues; it would take days to get your account verified and even set up a wallet,” Swanepoel told TechCrunch. “Now, over the last three years, companies like ours, especially in Africa, have built up this infrastructure, KYCs, new payment methods, customer experience and support. The experience is much better and education levels are a lot higher. To me, I think that’s played a large role in crypto adoption in the continent.”

In September last year, Luno got acquired by Digital Currency Group (DCG), an investment firm that builds, buys and invests in blockchain companies. Some of its portfolio companies include Coindesk, Genesis and Grayscale Investments. Before acquiring Luno, BCG first invested in the company’s seed round in 2014. Then last year, Swanepoel said he saw the opportunity to take Luno to a larger scale after noticing the immense growth and adoption on its platform.

“The first five to six years for us was on a small scale and now, we want to go big. So it helps to have a global platform like DCG to do it from because they have large amounts of capital and are committed to investing in Africa as well as outside the continent,” he remarked

The CEO adds that DCG has more visibility on the crypto industry and trends. The acquisition was simply for Luno to leverage DCG’s insights and stay ahead of the curve, which looks to have paid off. Since the acquisition, Luno has seen the number of active users increase by 167%. As of January, the average user held more than $7,000 in their wallet, up 56% from December 2020.

Nothing lasts forever, but if the crypto market bull run is anything to go by, crypto isn’t the fad people once thought it was. In Q1 2021, companies like Coinbase (going public Wednesday) and Robinhood experienced monster numbers showing strong growth projections. For Luno, it expects to continue growing exponentially, a trajectory that sets the company on track to reach 1 billion customers by 2030.

Clim8 raises $8M from 7pc Ventures, launches climate-focused investing app for retail investors

By Mike Butcher

Ethical investing remains something of a confusing maze, with a great deal of ‘greenwashing’ going on. A new UK startup is hoping to fix that with the launch of its new app and platform for retail investors.

Clim8 Invest has raised $8 million from 7pc Ventures (early backers of Oculus, acquired by Facebook),  British Business Bank Future Fund and a numbers of technology entrepreneurs and executives including Marcus Exall (Monese), Marcus Mosen (N26),  Paul Willmott (Lego Digital, McKinsey), Doug Scott (Redbrain), Matt Wilkins (Thought Machine), Andrew Cocker (Skyscanner), Steve Thomson (Redbrain), Monica Kalia (Neyber, Goldman Sachs), Doug Monro (Adzuna), Erik Nygard (Limejump).

Consumers will be able to invest in companies and supply chains that are focused on tackling climate change. It will be competing with similar startups in the space such as London-based Tickr (backed by $3m from Ada Ventures), Helios in Paris, and Yova in Zurich.

Duncan Grierson, CEO of Clim8 said in a statement: “We are launching at an exciting time for sustainable investing. 2020 was an exceptional year for environmentally-focused investment offerings, as investors looked harder at climate-related opportunities. Sustainable investments have continued to outperform markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 Crisis and we believe this will continue.”

Grierson has 20 years of experience in the green space and was a winner of the EY Entrepreneur of Year Cleantech award.

The startup will take advantage of new, higher EU rules around the disclosure requirements for sustainable investment funds. Users can choose between either stocks and shares ISAs (up to £20k) or a taxable general investment account.

The Cult of CryptoPunks

By Lucas Matney

Last month, hours before news of Beeple’s $69 million NFT sale grabbed the front pages of newspapers across the country, a pair of 24 x 24 pixel portraits of aliens wearing little hats sold separately for around $7.5 million each.

The sales, which occurred within 20 hours of each other, didn’t garner the same headlines that the Beeple auction received, but there was a bit of coverage in the tech press, mostly because one of the aliens was sold by Dylan Field, the CEO of design software startup Figma. In a Clubhouse conversation following the sale, Field said he hoped that a century from now the blocky image he had sold would be seen as the “Mona Lisa of digital art.”

Punk #7804, which recently sold for 4,200 Ether (about $7.5M at the time of sale)

The pixelated alien portraits belonged to an NFT platform called CryptoPunks. In the world of NFTs, the platform is as close to ancient history as it gets, meaning it’s almost four years old. There are 10,000 punks, all of which were procedurally generated and claimed for free when the project launched in 2017.

Since then, the economy built around trading these images has sauntered on with a small but passionate community, at least until a few months ago. That’s when it suddenly exploded, dragging into the fray Silicon Valley CEOs, prominent venture capitalists, famous YouTubers, poker stars and major business personalities. The platform has seen nearly $200 million worth of transaction volume in official deals since launch, according to NFT tracking site CryptoSlam, with 98% of that volume flowing through the platform in the past few months.

The sudden rise in punk prices is owed to an explosion of interest in NFTs largely brought about by climbing cryptocurrency prices, the rise in popularity of Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot and the resurgence of the physical collectibles markets, all of which have made some investors more comfortable with the idea of betting on digital goods.

Today, the cheapest punk you can buy will run you about $30,000 in Ethereum cryptocurrency, while the rarest may be worth just shy of $10 million.

CryptoPunks have captured plenty of attention, but even with all eyeballs on the project, people still aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking at.

“In NFT world, people are talking about selling Jack Dorsey tweets, Top Shots and Beeple in the same sentence right now,” Sotheby’s CEO Charles Stewart told TechCrunch in an interview. “The lines can get a little blurry. When you look at CryptoPunks, are they art? Are they collectibles? Are they… you know, well… what are they exactly?”

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

A ‘more honest’ stock market

Back in early 2017, John Watkinson and Matt Hall were playing with a pixelated character generator they built, and they were pretty enthusiastic about the fun little pop art portraits they had been cooking up. By June, they had created 10,000 characters with different hairstyles, hats and glasses for a project called CryptoPunks that would be hosted on the nascent Ethereum blockchain. Some punks had a handful of attributes, some had none, some were apes, some were aliens. While the creators had a hand in curating some elements, they let their generator take control of the creativity.

They launched to modest interest from a small community of blockchain enthusiasts who only had to pay a few pennies in Ethereum “gas” transaction fees to own their own punk. It was a novel idea, pre-dating the NFT platform CryptoKitties by months and NBA Top Shot by years, but it arrived at the cusp of crypto’s 2017 wave during the early throes of initial coin offerings, where scams were plentiful and attention was hard to come by. Hall said that about 20-30 punks were claimed in the days following launch.

Then a week later Mashable wrote a story about the fledgling crypto art project, and within hours every punk was gone.

Some users went all-in immediately. One user that went by the username hemba has become something of a cautionary figure in the CryptoPunks community, claiming more than 1,000 punks at launch and selling every one of them before the market took off this year, missing out on tens of millions of dollars in profits at current prices. Another user who goes by mr703 claimed some 703 punks in total at launch, hundreds of which they are still holding onto years later in a collection similarly worth tens of millions.

In a Discord chat with the pseudonymous mr703, we asked whether they felt they had enough or if there were any punks they still intended to buy. “I own all the punks I ever really want,” they typed back. Their public wallet shows they paid more than $37,000 for a punk in the minutes in between our question and their answer. They spent $35,000 on another one several hours later.

Some investors who have already gone all-in backing risky cryptocurrencies see NFTs as a way to diversify their crypto holdings. Others see CryptoPunks as more of a game.

CryptoPunks creators Matt Hall and John Watkinson

“I think that with each year that passes the definition of what is gambling and what is investing move closer and closer together,” says Mike McDonald, a 31-year-old professional poker player who recently bought his first punk.

Why are some punks worth tens of thousands of dollars while others are worth millions? Users in the thriving CryptoPunks Discord community have had to decide that on their own, combining objective analysis of the rarity of certain design attributes with the more subjective impressions of punk “aesthetics.”

Things aren’t always predictable. Earrings are the most common attribute for punks, commanding much lower price floors than those with beanie hats, which are the rarest attribute. But hundreds of punks are wearing 3D glasses, yet they tend to earn a hefty premium over those with green clown hair even though fewer of those punks exist. Some attributes gain market momentum randomly; for instance, the market for punks wearing hoodies has been particularly hot in recent weeks.

“Obviously this is a very speculative market… but it’s almost more honest than the stock market,” user Max Orgeldinger tells TechCrunch. “Kudos to Elon Musk — and I’m a big Tesla fan — but there are no fundamentals that support that stock price. It’s the same when you look at GameStop. With the whole NFT community, it’s almost more honest because nobody’s getting tricked into thinking there’s some very complicated math that no one can figure out. This is just people making up prices and if you want to pay it, that’s the price and if you don’t want to pay it, that’s not the price.”

As prices have surged, owning a piece of the CryptoPunks’ finite supply has become a “digital flex” in its own right, especially when used as an avatar on social media sites, several punk owners told us. That has drawn plenty of wealthy buyers outside the blockchain world, including influencers like YouTuber Logan Paul who uploaded a video last month detailing his $170,000 purchase of several punks.

“When you don’t have a punk, the ecosystem seems like this gentlemen’s club of the 10,000 people that can afford these kinds of avatars,” says McDonald.

There is some concern among the community whether all of this outside attention is a sign of an impending crash in prices, though many investors feel reassured by the historical value of CryptoPunks among NFTs. Nevertheless, some of the investors have a hard time convincing those in their lives that what they’re doing is anything but reckless.

After a recent six-figure punk purchase, user Chris Mintern says his girlfriend was exasperated that he had just dropped more money on a punk than her house was worth. “She says it’s all just a bunch of internet nerds who don’t appreciate the value of money. That to them, it’s just a game and numbers on a screen,” he told TechCrunch.

The community surrounding CryptoPunks has largely bloomed on the chat app Discord in a dedicated group where users that are verified as punk owners tend to drive conversations and can gather attention for up-and-coming NFT projects they’re betting on.

“It’s a bit of a cult,” said user thebeautyandthepunk in an interview.

Like many early users, thebeautyandthepunk has stayed pseudonymous since claiming a couple dozen punks at launch, telling us that no one in her life has any idea she’s sitting on an NFT collection likely worth millions — except her accountant. She did recently decide to make it known that she was one of the few female traders who have been present in the overwhelmingly male CryptoPunks community since the beginning.

“I really try to keep my real life and my crypto life completely separate,” she says. “But people need to know that women have been [in this space] for a while and we’re not going anywhere.”

Today, all 10,000 punks are scattered across some 1,889 wallets, according to crypto tracker Etherscan. Some of those accounts are inactive and feared dead, with the punks inside them lost on the blockchain forever. The largest single wallet of punks today belongs to the platform’s creators, holding some 488 punks. It’s their only ownership in a blockchain-based marketplace where most mechanics are already set in stone.

“We’re just users now, too. Nothing about our website is specific to us having created the project,” Watkinson tells TechCrunch. “Our only equity is through the punks we own. We don’t take a cut of the market or anything.”

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

The NFT high-rollers table

Today, CryptoPunks’ creators are working on NFTs full time. While they can’t make any underlying changes to the CryptoPunks contract, they have aimed to improve the website’s marketplace while hopping into the Discord group to keep an eye on the ever-growing community of users.

“It was never our intention for this to sort of be our careers,” Watkinson says.

In 2019, the duo debuted a follow-up project called Autoglyphs, which brought generative art to the blockchain. It didn’t boast the pop aesthetic of CryptoPunks, but it added a new layer to their exploration of blockchain art. Hall and Watkinson have built up a company around their various projects called Larva Labs, and they are in the process of building up a new NFT project that they hope will have a lower barrier of entry than CryptoPunks and Autoglyphs.

“As the CryptoPunks get more and more expensive, they’re just hard to get into,” Hall says.

At around $200 million in official marketplace sales, CryptoPunks’ total lifetime sales volume is about 40% of what Dapper Labs’ NBA Top Shot has achieved in its past several months. Though CryptoPunks has done so with 0.35% of Top Shot’s total transaction volume, which is fewer than 12,000 trades compared to more than 3.3 million, according to CryptoSlam. Those high transaction numbers spread across millions of NFTs mean much less value per transaction on Top Shot, but a much, much bigger pool of active users.

Last month, Dapper Labs announced they had raised $305 million at a $2.6 billion valuation as they look to expand their private Flow blockchain to other blockchain “games” through more high-profile partnerships. Hall and Watkinson have been watching Dapper Labs’ success, but don’t think Larva Labs will need venture funding to continue exploring what’s next for NFTs.

“Rather than looking at becoming a large company and doing a deal with the NBA or something like that, we’re more just looking forward to kind of just continuing to explore the tech possibilities,” Watkinson said. “What we love about CryptoPunks is the action, and so we’d like to find a way back to sort of that level of action, and our next project is going to try to find ways to sort of keep the deal flow going.”

They have few details to share on the new project, which they said will debut “relatively soon” this year.

Image Credits: Lucas Matney

The origin of the species

CryptoPunks lore is largely steeped in the assertion that they are the oldest NFT project on the Ethereum blockchain. It’s a line that was floated by almost all of the punk owners I spoke with as the main reason they had dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the platform. In Paul’s recent YouTube video, he justified prices to his skeptical friends by noting, “[CryptoPunks] is the first and that makes it special.”

But over the past few weeks, holes in that narrative have begun to emerge, as “crypto archaeologists” have begun to unearth abandoned NFT projects that were created in Ethereum’s earliest days, with at least one arriving before CryptoPunks. We recently spoke with Cyrus Adkisson, the creator of a project called Etheria, which he debuted back in 2015, just three months after Ethereum’s mainnet went live. The project allowed users to buy up, sell and build on hexagonal swaths of digital land on a large map. It didn’t develop much of a following at launch and sat abandoned for years on the Ethereum blockchain until Adkisson saw the “fever pitch” developing around NFTs and started searching for the passcode to his old account.

“I remember calling my parents toward the end of February, telling them I may be sitting on a goldmine here,” Adkisson told TechCrunch.

After ultimately gaining access to his Etheria account, he then fired off a few tweets from Etheria’s long-dormant Twitter account, detailing that the bulk of the 914 tiles across two externally tradeable versions were still available and could be claimed for 1 Ether each. Adkisson says by the end of that weekend, his previously empty wallet was filled with $1.4 million worth of Ethereum.

1/ I hear that NFTs have become a thing. Here is some essential about Etheria, the first NFT project ever deployed to the Ethereum blockchain all the way back in October 2015 and presented at DEVCON1. pic.twitter.com/aBZghPdFbS

— Etheria (the OG NFTs) (@etheria_feed) March 13, 2021

Age alone won’t make Etheria a hit; the major challenge from here is building up a community around the project that brings in more users and pushes the prices of land tiles higher. A tile recently sold for nearly $25,000 worth of Ether, but early adopters are struggling to balance waiting out the market’s development with liquidating enough tiles so that new users can get involved and the project can build hype. 

“With these projects, it’s like, yeah, you have the historical context, but now you need to build a solid foundation with your communities because your real measure is not now, but it’s going to be what your community, size and engagement look like in a year,” says Allen Hena, an NFT enthusiast who helped attract attention to the Etheria community last month with a series of blog posts.

 In the days following the project’s resurrection, the young community has already seen plenty of disagreement and infighting as Adkisson aims to maintain some level of control over the platform on which plenty have already pinned their retirement plans. Owners are mainly frustrated by Adkisson’s attempts to make an older version of Etheria externally tradeable, something that would likely make land tiles on the existing contracts considerably less valuable. Since our interview, Adkisson has left Etheria’s Discord server and admins in the group have vowed to continue on without him as he decides which direction he wants to take Etheria 1.0.

While punk owners we talked with are keeping an eye on these newly reemerged projects, they’re also skeptical that Etheria’s older status will do much to impact CryptoPunks’ value to NFT history.

“On paper it looks cool but it didn’t actually do anything for the community,” says user Daniel Maegaard. “CryptoPunks did all the hard work.”

Punk #6487, which Daniel Maegaard recently sold for 550 Ether (about $1.05M at the time of sale)

Maegaard, a 30-year-old crypto investor based in Brisbane, Australia, is more tied up in the value of CryptoPunks than most. He recently sold a particularly rare female “zero-trait” punk for more than $1 million. He’s also the owner of one of the rarest — some argue the rarest — punks, the only one with seven unique attributes, a qualifier that has earned it the nickname “7-atty” and a sacred place in punk lore. When he bought the punk for about $18,000 in Ethereum last year, it was the most anyone had ever paid. He isn’t keen to let it go anytime soon, saying he recently turned down a private offer for $4.2 million from a group of investors that hoped to tokenize the NFT and sell fractional shares of it to other users. Part of holding onto it is the potential for further gains, but the real reason, he says, is that he’s beginning to feel an emotional bond with his collection of digital files.

“These little pixelated faces, it should be easy to give them up. I’ve sold a few punks and I’ve regretted every sale, I experienced that when I sold my zero-trait punk,” Maegaard says. “Like, yeah, a million dollars is nice, but I really liked her.”

Private chef parties at home startup Yhangry raises $1.5M seed from VC angels and Ollie Locke

By Mike Butcher

There’s an “uber for everything” these days and now there are “Ubers for personal chefs”. Just take a look at PopTop or 100 Pleats for instance. Now in London, there is Yhangry (which brands itself as the appropriately shouty YHANGRY). This is a “private chef parties at home” website, and no doubt an app at some point. The startup has now raised a $1.5 million seed round from a number of notable UK angels which also includes a few UK VCs for good measure, as well as ‘Made In Chelsea’ TV star Ollie Locke.

Founders Heinin Zhang and Siddhi Mittal created the startup before the pandemic, which lets people order a made-to-measure dinner party online. Although it trundled along until Covid, it had to pivot into virtual chef classes during lockdowns last year and this. The company is now poised to take advantage of London’s unlocking, which will see legal outdoor and indoor dining return.

The startup also speaks to the decentralization of experiences going on in the wake of the pandemic. In 2019 we were working out in gyms and going to restaurants. In 2021 we are working out at home and bringing the restaurant to us.

Normally booking private dinner parties involves a lot of hassle. The idea here is that Yhangry makes the whole affair as easy to order as an Uber Eats or Deliveroo.

Investors in the Seed round include Carmen Rico (Blossom Capital), Eileen Burbidge (Passion Capital), Orson Stadler (Antler) and Martin Mignot (Index Ventures), Made In Chelsea star Ollie Locke, plus fellow tech founders including Jack Tang (Urban), Adnan Ebrahim (MindLabs), Alex Fitzgerald (Cuckoo Internet), Georgina Kirby (Vinehealth) and Deepali Nangia (Alma Angels). Yhangry’s statement said all the investors are also keen customers. I bet they are.

Co-founder Mittal said in a statement: “By making private chef experiences more accessible and affordable, our customers regularly tell us they are finally able to catch up with friends at home… 70% of our customers have never had a private chef before and for them, the freedom and flexibility to curate their own evening is priceless.”

Yhangry now has 130 chefs on its books. Chefs have to pass a cooking trial and adhere to Covid rules. The funding will be used to double the size of the startup’s team.

The menus start at £17pp for six people. The price of the booking covers everything, including the cost of the fresh ingredients, but customers can add extras, such as wine etc. Since its launch in December 2019, the firm says it has served more than 7,000 Londoners.

Yhangry says it will enter key European markets, such as Paris, Berlin, Lisbon and Barcelona.

How will Yhangry survive post-Covid, with restaurants/bars opening up again?

Mittal said: “When restaurants were open between our launch and March 2020, we saw demand because people want to be able to spend time with their friends in a relaxed setting, and aren’t limited to the two-hour slot you get in a restaurant. Once places start to open up again, we believe Yhangry will follow this trend of at-home dining and socializing – not to mention for people who are not ready yet to go out to a busy pub or restaurant.”

Uber entices drivers back post-pandemic with $250 million stimulus

By Rebecca Bellan

Despite the classification of ride-hail drivers as “essential workers” during the early days of the pandemic, last April Uber’s business dropped by 80%. Drivers decided they’d rather not risk contracting or spreading COVID-19 for the measly revenue provided by the few rides per day they were getting, so when the federal CARES Act extended the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to gig workers, many Uber drivers decided to hang up their keys. 

With more than a quarter of the U.S. population already vaccinated, Uber is now in a sticky situation wherein there are more riders requesting trips than there are drivers available. The ride-hailing giant not only wants drivers to know that there’s business to be had once again, but they also want to sweeten the deal with incentives. 

On Wednesday, the company announced the launch of a $250 million driver stimulus to welcome drivers back into the fold and recruit new ones as the pandemic begins to ease in the U.S. Both returning drivers and new drivers will be receiving bonuses over the coming months, according to an Uber spokesperson.  

“In 2020, many drivers stopped driving because they couldn’t count on getting enough trips to make it worth their time,” reads the blog post announcing the stimulus. “In 2021, there are more riders requesting trips than there are drivers available to give them—making it a great time to be a driver.”

Due to high rider demand and low supply of drivers, the current median hourly rate for cities like Philadelphia, Austin, Chicago, Miami and Phoenix is $26.66, which is 25% to 75% higher than they were in March of last year. Uber wants drivers to take advantage of the higher earnings now because “this is likely a temporary situation.” Meaning as the country recovers and more gig workers get back behind the wheel, earnings will likely decrease from their current levels. 

The stimulus money will go on top of those hourly rates, a spokesperson told TechCrunch. The incentive structure will be based on individual activity, as well as location. For example, in Austin, drivers are guaranteed $1,100 if they complete 115 trips. In Phoenix, drivers can earn an extra $1,775 for 200 trips. 

The money will also go towards guaranteed minimum pay and on-boarding for new Uber drivers, and the full $250 million pool is coming directly from Uber’s pockets. The company’s shares declined as much as 3.6% during trading on Wednesday. 

Uber is also aiming to help streamline the process of getting drivers vaccinated with an in-app booking portal as part of its partnership with Walgreens.

Black Innovation Alliance, Village Capital team up to support founders of color

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Black Innovation Alliance and Village Capital today announced Resource, a national initiative aimed at boosting the efforts of entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) led by, and focused on, founders of color.

The motivation behind the project is straightforward. ESOs “face record demand, declining resources and are chronically underestimated, underappreciated and underfunded,” the organizations say.

Resource aims to give local accelerators and incubators support in the form of training and community.

Resource’s “ESO Accelerator” will train startup ecosystem leaders on how to build a more financially sustainable organization, as well as help connect them to potential funders. It also will provide milestone-based financial support tied to organizational development.

Resource also plans to build a national community of practice among ESO leaders of color and their funders to share best practices and “develop stronger capital and mentorship pathways” for Black, Latinx and Indigenous founders across the U.S.

Village Capital, says CEO Allie Burns, supports and invest in entrepreneurs “who have been historically sitting in historical blind spots of investors, whether that’s by the problems they’re trying to solve, the geography they’re located in or demographic factors that we have seen lead to capital being concentrated in very few people, places and problems.” Village Capital has worked with more than 100 other ESOs to help grow companies with founders from all backgrounds over the past five years.

The goal with Resource is to help ensure that incubators and accelerators focused on supporting people of color have the resources they need to flourish, she added.

“We want to make sure that those accelerators and other ESOs have the financial, social and human capital to keep their doors open and grow,” Burns said.

Black Innovation Alliance Executive Director Kelly Burton points out that these Black-led organizations are often the first line of support for Black entrepreneurs yet reap few benefits from their success over time.

“They receive very little support and very little funding,” she said. “It’s almost like they do all the heavy lifting, they plant seeds and do all the cultivation but they don’t really get to benefit once that founder and that startup has really taken off. This is an opportunity for us to stabilize these organizations to help them build their own capacities and capabilities so that that organization can be sustainable.”

Resource is supported by a national coalition of funders committed to supporting entrepreneurs of color. The initial coalition includes Moody’s, The Sorenson Impact Foundation, Travelers and UBS.

In related news, on Tuesday we covered New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s proposal for a $10 million allocation in the state budget to create a seed fund for Black and Latinx startups.

In that piece, we noted that there are a number of organizations out there that are committed to funding diverse founders.

In February, several national and Chicago-based organizations banded together to support early-stage Black and Latinx tech entrepreneurs through a new program dubbed TechRise. The nonprofit P33 launched the program in partnership with Verizon and 1871, a private business incubator and technology hub, among others, with the goals “of narrowing the wealth gap in Chicago, generating thousands of tech-related jobs and giving $5 million in grant funding to Black and Latino entrepreneurs,” according to the Chicago Sun Times. (Disclosure: Verizon is TechCrunch’s parent company).

Also in Austin, DivInc is a nonprofit pre-accelerator that holds 12-week programs for underrepresented tech founders. Founded in 2016 by former Dell executive Preston James, the organization aims to “empower people of color and women entrepreneurs and help them build successful high-growth businesses by providing them with access to education, mentorship and vital networks.”

Avant doubles down on digital banking with Zero Financial acquisition

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Avant, an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity, announced today that it has acquired Zero Financial and its neobank brand, Level, to further its mission of becoming a digital bank for the masses.

Founded in 2012, Chicago-based Avant started out primarily as an online lender targeting “underserved consumers,” but is evolving into digital banking with this acquisition. The company notched gross revenue of $265 million in 2020 and has raised capital over the years from backers such as General Atlantic and Tiger Global Management.

“Our path has always been to become the premier digital bank for the everyday American,” Avant CEO James Paris told TechCrunch. “The massive transition to digital over the last 12 months made the timing right to expand our offerings.” 

The acquisition of Zero Financial and its neobank, Level (plus its banking app assets), will give Avant the ability to offer “a full ecosystem of banking and credit product offerings” through one fully digital platform, according to Paris. Those offerings include deposits, personal loans, credit cards and auto loans.

Financial terms of the deal weren’t disclosed other than the fact that the acquisition was completed with a combination of cash and stock.

Founded in 2016, San Francisco-based Zero Financial has raised $147 million in debt and equity, according to Crunchbase. New Enterprise Associates (NEA) led its $20 million Series A in May of 2019.

Level was unveiled to the public in February of 2020, created by the same California-based team that founded the “debit-style” credit card offering Zero, according to this FintechFutures piece. The challenger bank was created to target millennials dissatisfied with the incumbent banking options.

Zero Financial co-founder and CEO Bryce Galen said that Avant shared his company’s mission “to challenge the status quo by bringing innovative financial services products to consumers who might otherwise be unable to access them.”

Avant, notes Paris, uses thousands of AI-driven data points to determine credit risk. With this acquisition, that lens will be expanded with data, such as a deposit customer’s cash flow, how they manage their finances and whether they pay their bills on time. 

“This will allow us to make credit decisions faster and deliver personalized options to help underbanked consumers gain financial freedom, at any and every stage of their financial journey,” Paris told TechCrunch. “It will also build long-term engagement and loyalty and help grow our reach beyond the 1.5 million customers we’ve served to date.”  

Like a growing number of fintechs, Avant operates under the premise that a person’s ability to get credit shouldn’t be dictated by a credit score alone.

“A significant amount of Americans have poor, bad or no credit at all. For these people, accessing credit isn’t exactly easy and often comes with extra fees,” Paris said. That’s why, he added, Avant has focused on providing options for such consumers with “transparent, rewards-driven products.”

Level’s branchless, all-digital platform offers things such as cashback rewards on debit card purchases, a “competitive APY” on deposits, early access to paychecks and no hidden fees, all of which are especially beneficial for consumers on the path to financial freedom, according to Paris.

Since its inception in 2012, Avant has connected more than 1.5 million consumers to $7.5 billion in loans and 400,000 credit cards. The company launched its credit card in 2017 and over the past two years alone, it has grown its number of credit card users by 170%.

Putting Belfast on the TechCrunch map — TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the larger European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words.

This is your chance to put Belfast on the Techcrunch Map!

If you are a tech startup founder or investor in the city please fill out the survey form here.

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last six or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service that unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys, the cities we wrote about were largely capitals. You can see them listed here.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly unedited and are generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are a tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher.

Brighton-based MPB snaps up $69M to build out its used camera equipment marketplace

By Ingrid Lunden

Used-goods marketplaces, an online staple since the beginning of the internet as we know it, have really come into their own during the Covid-19 pandemic: they’ve been a place for people clearing out their domestic spaces to list items that they have that are still in good shape, making some money in the process; and for buyers, they are a resource for finding items at a time when shopping in person and spending money in uncertain economic times have both fallen out of favor. Today, MPB — a popular marketplace that specializes in used cameras and photographic equipment — is announcing significant funding to double down on the opportunity after seeing its platform “recirculate” some 300,000 items of kit globally each year and pass £100 million ($139 million) in revenues this year.

The Brighton, England-based startup has snapped up £49.8 million (about $69 million at current exchange rates). It plans to use the money both to expand into more markets — it currently has offices in Brooklyn and Berlin — and into more product areas, specifically, extending the marketplace concept to serve content creators.

The Series D is being led by Vitruvian Partners, with significant participation from Acton Capital, and Mobeus Equity Partners, Beringea and FJ Labs also participating. Vitruvian is a new backer for MPB; the rest were already invested in the startup, which has raised around $91 million since 2011.

MPB did not disclose its valuation in a statement on the fundraise; we have contacted the company to ask and will update if / when we learn more.

For some context, this is the biggest-ever round raised by a startup out of Brighton. Home to one university and right next to another, Brighton has had some tech world focus — Brandwatch made a splash in February when it was acquired by Cision for $450 million; and it is well known for gaming companies and talent — but has largely been off the fundraising radar, perhaps in part because it is so close to London and its own gravitational pull for entrepreneurs and VCs. PitchBook put MPB’s valuation at $50.86 million in 2019; it’s likely to be significantly higher than this now.

“This funding round is a major milestone for MPB, culminating a decade of strong performance and a vision to make great kit accessible and affordable,” said Matt Barker, MPB’s founder and CEO, in a statement. “With the backing of Vitruvian Partners and those reinvesting in our business, we can accelerate our US and European growth strategy at scale, profitably. Photography and videography are intrinsic to societies and cultures all over the world, and at MPB we have created a circular model that offers everyone the chance to be visual storytellers and content creators in a way that’s good for the planet.”

Indeed, what’s interesting about MPB is how it touches on and addresses a number of themes that have been playing out across the world of e-commerce and wider digital society, and what’s probably made it successful has been its appeal to people on one or more of those fronts at the same time.

First, there is the platform it gives to people to sell and buy used camera equipment. The sale of used items gives owners an opportunity to make money off items they no longer need, and buyers a way to procure items at lower costs. And it has an obvious environmental angle to it, since circular economy operators encourage people to get more life out of electronics that might otherwise simply become part of landfill (or encourage more manufacturing of new goods in their place).

But on a more practical level, used-good sales also have often put people off in part because they are deprived of some of the guarantees that you would normally get on goods when buying from more established retailers.

MPB provides buying and seller security in its own way: by employing a team of people to vet and prepare items for sale, and providing a six-month guarantee on items sold over its platform. That has paid off for it even pre-pandemic: the company said that its compound growth rate over the last five years has been 53%.

(And more generally, used goods marketplaces are seeing some big attention from VCs at the moment in Europe: in February, Wallapop in Spain raised $191 million for its more generalised used-goods marketplace, and in March Vestaire Collective raised $216 million.)

Second, it touches on the bigger trend we’ve seen around the growth of communities focused on specific rather than general interests. It’s a clear way of conferring more authenticity, focus and signal in an otherwise very noisy world online, and in a specialized area like the sale of photography equipment, this can be especially critical and a unique selling point over more generic sales platforms like eBay: it means more attention paid by the platform to stock, as well as a more focused community of buyers and sellers.

Third, there is the focus of MPB in particular. We have most definitely seen the birth of a “creator economy” online, where people are making livings out of their own brands (ugh), or from their specific creative output, bypassing some of the more traditional middle-men in favor of newer ones (eg, network broadcasters no longer the sole gatekeepers for serialized video content and all of the work that goes into making it; YouTube conversely now makes a killing off it, and if Substack, Patreon and others like it play their cards right, they will soon, in their own areas of interest, too.)

What this might mean for companies like MPB is a surge of interest and attention on equipment for capturing those images, although it will be interesting to see how and if that can be leveraged on a wider scale, given how so much of that creation today is happening on smartphones, which themselves continue to get more sophisticated and eat into not just casual photographers’ buying patterns, but more serious ones, too.

In the question of scaling, MPB will have an interesting partner in the form of Vitruvian Partners, which backs second-hand clothes marketplace Vestiaire Collective — which raised $216 million last month, another sign of the times and how they have boosted the opportunities for used-good sales — alongside other marketplaces like Carwow, Just Eat, Farfetch, Skyscanner and Trustpilot.

“MPB has developed a unique tech-enabled platform to meet a market need, transforming access to photography kit to become a global leader in its field, whilst building a product that genuinely has a positive impact on the world,” said Tom Studd, partner at Vitruvian Partners, said in a statement. “Matt and the team have achieved strong and profitable growth through recent launches in the US and Germany, and we’re delighted to partner with them for the next step of the journey. Vitruvian looks to back exceptional teams with unique products in large markets, and we believe Matt and the team fit those criteria perfectly.”

Sebastian Wossagk, managing partner at Acton Capital, added: “It’s always a privilege to watch companies like MPB grow and excel in their field. Matt and his team have already taken the first steps into internationalisation by opening locations in Brooklyn and Berlin, and we’re excited to support them as they pursue further expansion in both the US and Europe.”

Something notable about MPB is that Barker once said that he founded it in part because he didn’t feel that the requirements of people in the photography community were being addressed well enough by more general sites like eBay or Gumtree. That may still be the case for those two sites (and countless other generic sales platforms), but it doesn’t mean that there are not a number of other players addressing the used-photography equipment market. They include the likes of Worldwide Camera Exchange, Park Cameras, Camera World, and many others with equally SEO-friendly names. That represents opportunities for consolidation, competitive threat, and hopefully innovation for better services, but also a sign that there is more to this market than might meet the eye.

Coinbase to direct list on April 14th, provide financial update on April 6th

By Alex Wilhelm

Today Coinbase, an American cryptocurrency trading platform and software company, said that it will begin to trade via a direct listing on April 14th. In a separate release the company also said that it will provide a financial update on April 6th, after the close of trading.

Coinbase’s impending public debut comes at an interesting market moment. As some tech companies delay their offerings over demand concerns, Coinbase is pushing ahead with its flotation perhaps in part because it will not price its debut in the traditional sense; direct listings forgo raising capital at a specific price point, and instead merely begin to trade, albeit with a reference price attached.

That Coinbase will release new numbers before beginning to trade is at once interesting and pedestrian. It’s interesting as TechCrunch cannot recall a private company looking to go public holding a similar event. And, Coinbase deciding to share “first quarter 2021 estimated results” and “provide a financial outlook for 2021” is also in part a common move, as many companies provide updated financials in their S-1 documents if time passes from when they first file to when they actually trade.

We’ll be tuned into that call, as the numbers shared will impact not only how Coinbase trades when it does float, but will also provide insight into how active consumer trading is writ large, and particularly in the cryptocurrency space; more than one startup in the market today depends on trading incomes to generate top-line, so seeing new numbers from Coinbase will be welcome.

The company will trade under the ticker symbol “COIN.”

Put your city on the TC map — TechCrunch’s European Cities Survey 2021

By Mike Butcher

TechCrunch is embarking on a major new project to survey European founders and investors in cities outside the larger European capitals.

Over the next few weeks, we will ask entrepreneurs in these cities to talk about their ecosystems, in their own words.

This is your chance to put your city on the Techcrunch Map!

This is the follow-up to the huge survey of investors (see also below) we’ve done over the last 6 or more months, largely in capital cities.

These formed part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing regularly for ExtraCrunch, our subscription service which unpacks key issues for startups and investors.

In the first wave of surveys (as you can see below) the cities we wrote about were largely capitals.

This time, we will be surveying founders and investors in Europe’s other cities to capture how European hubs are growing, from the perspective of the people on the ground.

We’d like to know how your city’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and generally how your city will evolve.

We leave submissions mostly un-edited, and generally looking for at least one or two paragraphs in answers to the questions.

So if you are tech startup founder or investor in one of these cities please fill out our survey form here.

Austria: Graz, Linz
Belgium: Antwerp
Croatia: Zagreb, Osjek
Czech Republic: Brno, Ostrava, Plzen
England: Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester
Estonia: Tartu
France: Toulouse, Lyon, Lille
Germany: Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Bielefeld, Frankfurt
Greece: Thessaloniki
Ireland: Cork
Israel: Jerusalem
Italy: Trieste, Bologna, Turin, Florence, Milan
Netherlands: Delft, Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Utrecht
Northern Ireland: Belfast, Derry
Poland: Gdańsk, Wroclaw, Krakow, Poznan
Portugal: Porto, Braga
Romania: Cluj, Lasi, Timisoara, Oradea, Brasov
Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow
Spain: Valencia
Sweden: Malmo
Switzerland: Geneva, Lausanne

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com and/or reply on Twitter to @mikebutcher

Here are the cities that previously participated in The Great TechCrunch Survey of Europe’s VCs:

Amsterdam/Netherlands

Athens/Greece

Berlin/Germany

Brussels/Belgium

Bucharest/Romania

Copenhagen/Denmark

Dublin/Ireland

Helsinki/Finland

Lisbon/Portugal

London/UK

Madrid & Barcelona/Spain (Part 1 & Part 2)

Oslo/Norway

Paris/France

Prague/Czech Republic

Rome, Milan/Italy

Stockholm/Sweden

Tel Aviv/Israel

Vienna/Austria

Warsaw/Poland (Part 1 & Part 2)

Zurich/Switzerland

Atlanta’s early stage investment renaissance continues with Overline’s $27 million fund close

By Jonathan Shieber

Michael Cohn became a celebrity in the Atlanta startup ecosystem when the company he co-founded was sold to Accenture in a deal valued somewhere between $350 million and $400 million nearly six years ago.

That same year, Sean O’Brien also made waves in the community when he helped shepherd the sale of the  collaboration software vendor, PGi, to a private equity firm for $1.5 billion.

The two men are now looking to become fixtures in the city’s burgeoning new tech community with the close of their seed-stage venture capital firm’s first fund, a $27.4 million investment vehicle.

Overline’s first fund has already made commitments to companies that are expanding the parameters of what’s investible in the Southeast broadly and Atlanta’s startup scene locally.

These are companies like Grubbly Farms, which sells insect-based chicken feed for backyard farmers, or Kayhan Space, which is aiming to be the air traffic control service for the space industry. Others, like Padsplit, an Atlanta-based flexible housing marketplace, are tackling America’s low income housing crisis. 

“Our business model is very different from that of a traditional software startup, and the Overline team’s unique strengths and operator mindset have been invaluable in helping us grow the company,” said Sean Warner, CEO and co-founder of Grubbly Farms. 

That’s on top of investments into companies building on Atlanta’s natural strengths as a financial services, payments and business software powerhouse.

For all of the activity in Atlanta these days, the city and the broader southeastern region is still massively underfunded, according to O’brien and Cohn. The region only received less than 10 percent of all the institutional venture investments that were committed in 2020. Indeed, only seven percent of Atlanta founders raise money locally when they’re first starting out, an Overline survey suggested.

“The data reflects what we have seen throughout our careers building, growing, and investing in startups. There is no shortage of phenomenal founders and businesses coming out of Atlanta and the Southeast, but they often struggle to find institutional capital at their earliest stages,” said O’Brien, in a statement. “Overline will lead as the first institutional check for these companies and be a true partner to the Founders throughout their lifecycle—supporting them on the strategic and operational business initiatives and decisions that are critical to a company’s success.” 

The limited partners in Overline’s first fund also reflects the firm’s emphasis on regional roots. The privately held email marketing behemoth Mailchimp anchored the fund, which also included partners like Cox Enterprises, Social Leverage,

Overline is supported by a bench of impressive partners that reflects the firm’s roots in the Southeast. Anchored by marketing platform, Mailchimp, additional partners include Cox Enterprises, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Social Leverage, Wilmington, Del.-based Hallett Capital, and Atlanta Tech Village founder David Cummings, along with Techstars co-founder David Cohen. 

“At Mailchimp, we love our hometown of Atlanta, and are proud of the robust startup ecosystem that’s growing in our city. The Overline founding team’s vision of deploying smart, local capital into startups in Atlanta and the Southeast aligns with our goals of promoting and advancing local innovation,” said Rick Lynch, CFO, Mailchimp, in a statement.

The firm expects to make investments of between $250,000 to $1.5 million into seed stage companies and has already backed 11 companies including, Relay Payments, a logistics fintech company that has raised over $40 million from top-tier investors. 

“When we set out to build Atlanta Tech Village almost a decade ago, one of our primary goals was to help Atlanta develop into a top 10 startup city, where all entrepreneurs would thrive. We’re making tremendous strides as a community, as evidenced by the number of newly minted unicorns,” said serial entrepreneur and Atlanta Tech Village founder David Cummings. “I believe in Overline’s thesis that value-add institutional early-stage capital is critical to the ecosystem’s continued development. Since the early days, Michael and Sean have been an active presence in our community in a way that goes far beyond being a source of capital—as mentors, advisors, and champions of Atlanta founders. I am proud to be one of their first investors.”

Visa supports transaction settlement with USDC stablecoin

By Romain Dillet

Payment card network Visa has announced that transactions can be settled using USD Coin (USDC), a stablecoin powered by the Ethereum blockchain. Crypto.com is the first company to test the new capability with its own Visa-branded cards.

USDC is a stablecoin co-founded by Circle and Coinbase and by managed the Centre consortium. As the name suggests, USDC is a cryptocurrency that follows the value of USD. One USDC is always worth one USD — hence the name stablecoin.

In order to make sure that the value of USDC remains stable, USDC partners keep USD on bank accounts every time they issue new tokens. Those accounts are audited to make sure that there are as many USDC in circulation as there are USD in those accounts.

So why do stablecoins exist even though money is mostly digital these days? Like other crypto assets, stablecoins present some flexibility when it comes to sending, receiving and storing value. You don’t need a bank account and everything can be easily programmable. And you don’t need to support legacy systems, integrate with banks and pay transaction fees to other financial institutions.

While USDC originally started as a token on top of the Ethereum blockchain, USDC also supports two other blockchains — Algorand and Stellar. Visa has chosen to focus on the Ethereum variant of USDC for now.

The payment company already supports 160 currencies across the globe. That’s why you can seamlessly use your Visa card when you travel abroad. You’ll see a card transaction in your home currency on your card statement, but the merchant gets paid in their own local currency.

Thanks to a partnership with Anchorage, Visa is adding support for its first digital currency. Anchorage recently received a federal banking charter and is positioning itself as a digital asset bank. Visa was probably looking for a trustworthy partner for this program. As Anchorage got a thumbs-up from regulators, the partnership makes sense.

For Crypto.com, it means that it can send USDC directly to Visa. For instance, if a Crypto.com customer holds USDC in their wallet and makes a card transaction, Crypto.com doesn’t have to first convert USDC tokens to USD.

It can send USDC to Visa’s Ethereum wallet address at Anchorage to settle the transaction. The merchant then gets paid by Visa in their own currency. Visa says there will be more partners down the road in addition to Crypto.com.


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Spinning out from the cryptocurrency hardware developer Bitfury, LiquidStack pitches a data center cooling tech

By Jonathan Shieber

Data centers and bitcoin mining operations are becoming huge energy hogs, and the explosive growth of both risks undoing a lot of the progress that’s been made to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s one of the major criticisms of cryptocurrency operations and something that many in the industry are trying to address.

Enter LiquidStack, a company that’s spinning out from the cryptocurrency hardware technology developer Bitfury Group with a $10 million investment.

The company, which was formerly known as Allied Control Limited, restructured as a commercial operating company headquartered in the Netherlands with commercial operations in the U.S. and research and development in Hong Kong, according to a statement.

It was first acquired by Bitfury in 2015 after building a two-phase immersion cooling 500kW data center in Hong Kong, that purportedly cut energy consumption by 95% versus traditional air cooling technologies. Later, the companies jointly deployed 160 megawatts of two-phase immersion-cooled data centers.

“Bitfury has been innovating across multiple industries and sees major growth opportunities with LiquidStack’s game-changing cooling solutions for compute-intensive applications and infrastructure,” said Valery Vavilov, CEO of Bitfury. “I believe LiquidStack’s leadership team, together with our customers and strategic support from Wiwynn, will rapidly accelerate the global adoption and deployment of two-phase immersion cooling.”

The $10 million in funding came from the Taiwanese conglomerate Wiwynn, a data center and infrastructure developer with revenues of $6.3 billion last year.

“Wiwynn continues to invest in advanced cooling solutions to address the challenges of fast-growing power consumption and density for cloud computing, AI, and HPC,” said Emily Hong, chief executive of Wiwynn, in a statement.

In a statement, LiquidStack said its technology could enable at least 21 times more heat rejection per IT rack compared to air cooling — all without the need for water. The company said its cooling method results in a 41% reduction in energy used for cooling and a 60% reduction in data center space.

“Bitfury has always been focused on leading by example and is a technology driven company from the top of the organization, to its grass roots,” said Joe Capes, co-founder and chief executive of LiquidStack, in a statement. “Launching LiquidStack with new funding enables us to focus on our strengths and capabilities, accelerating the development of liquid cooling technology, products and services to help solve real thermal and sustainability challenges driven by the adoption of cloud services, AI, edge and high-performance computing.”

Acquisition-happy space infrastructure company Redwire set to go public via SPAC

By Darrell Etherington

The latest in a string of space tech SPACs announced this year is Redwire, an entity created by a PE firm in 2020, which has acquired a number of smaller companies including Adcole Space, Roccor, Made in Space, LoadPath, Oakman Aerospace, Deployable Space Systems and more — all within the last year or so. Redwire announced that it will go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Genesis Park Acquisition Crop., and the combined company will list on the NYSE.

The deal puts Redwire’s pro forma enterprise value at %615 million, and is expected to provide an additional $170 million to Redwire’s coffers post-merger, including a PIPE valued at over $100 million. Unsurprisingly, one of the uses of the proceeds that Redwire intends to pursue is continued M&A activity to build out its list of service offering in the space domain.

Redwire’s mandate isn’t specifically to go after new space companies, and instead its targets share in common expertise in a particular, rather narrow slice of the severally space market. It’s capabilities include on-orbit manufacturing and servicing; satellite design, manufacture and assembly; payload integration; sensor design and development, and more. The idea appears to be to build a full-stack infrastructure company that can offer tip-to-tail space technology services, exclusive really only of launch and ground station components (for now).

It’s a smart approach for a bourgeoning new space economy where increasingly, technology companies who want to operate in space would rather focus on their unique value proposition, and outsource the complex, but mostly settled business of actually getting to, and operating in, space. Other companies are addressing the market in similar ways, with launchers bringing more of that part of the process in-house so their payload customers basically only have to show up with the sensor or communication device they want to send to space, and the launcher providing everything else — including even the satellite, in the relatively near future.

Redwire has proven revenue-generating power, with projected 2021 revenue of $163 million, and many of the companies now operating under its umbrella are fairly mature and have been operating cash flow positive for many years. Accordingly, a SPAC as a path to public markets likely does make sense in this particular instance, but the increasing frequency and volume of space companies choosing this route, is, on the whole, a trend to watch with healthy skepticism.

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