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NYC-based insurance underwriting platform Kalepa raises $14M Series A led by Inspired Capital

By Mike Butcher

Kalepa, an insurance underwriting platform based out of New York, has raised a $14 million Series A funding round led by Inspired Capital, with participation from previous investor IA Ventures. Also participating was Gokul Rajaram of Doordash, Coinbase, and formerly of Google, Jackie Reses, formerly of Square, and Henry Ward of Carta.

Founded by Paul Monasterio and Daniel Hillman, the startup was launched in 2018 aimed at commercial insurance underwriters.

Co-Founder and CEO, Paul Monasterio said: “InsureTech has seen a massive evolution over the past decade, but commercial insurance—which supports hard-working business owners and protects their most important assets—has been left behind. We leverage billions of data points and unlock crucial insights in order to bring businesses and insurers a single version of the truth.”

Kalepa says its Copilot software automatically learns what the best underwriters are doing, allowing an underwriter to take a more accurate underwriting decision as quickly as possible vs. simply aggregating a lot of data for them. It competes with the legacy MGAs (e.g., RT Specialty, AmWins) as well as new entrants such as Pathpoint in the E&S market.

Penny Pritzker, co-founder at Inspired Capital and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce said: “Commercial insurance represents a $1T industry globally and helps 30 million U.S. businesses. Kalepa has brought some of the sharpest minds in understanding risk to this segment of the insurance market.”

Veteran insurance player Mario Vitale is also joining Kalepa’s Board.

Acquired by Mercedes-Benz, YASA’s revolutionary electric motor is set for big things

By Mike Butcher

Back in July, YASA (formerly Yokeless And Segmented Armature), a British electric motor startup with a revolutionary ‘axial-flux’ motor, was acquired by Mercedes-Benz. The acquisition didn’t exactly garner enormous press attention, as scant other details were announced. But YASA is likely to be an entity worth watching.

Founded in 2009 after being spun out of Oxford University, YASA will now develop ultra-high-performance electric motors for Mercedes-Benz’s AMG.EA electric-only platform. It will stay in the UK as a fully owned subsidiary, serving both Mercedes-Benz and existing customers like Ferrari. The company will retain its own brand, team, facilities, and location in Oxford.

YASA’s axial-flux electric motors generated EV industry interest because of their efficiency, high power density, small size, and low weight.

By contrast, the ‘radial’ electric motor design is more common in today’s EV market. Even Tesla relies on radial electric motors, a legacy technology more than 40 years old with very little left to give in terms of innovation.

But YASA’s axial-flux design, which has very thin segments, means they can be combined into powerful single drive units. This makes them one-third the weight of other electric motors, more efficient, and with 3x higher power densities than Tesla.

Tim Woolmer, YASA’s Founder and CTO, invented this very new approach to electric motor design. I caught up with him to find out what’s next.

TC: What’s the journey so far:

TW: We started just over 12 years ago with really one remit: let’s accelerate electric cars, let’s do anything we can to make electric cars happen faster. We’re now 10 years into a 20-year revolution, every new car that gets sold in 10 years will be electric, no question. There’s nothing more exciting for an engineer than a period of revolution because the speed of innovation is what’s important. What is so exciting for us is we get to innovate fast, and that’s where the partnership with Mercedes is really interesting.

TC: What was different about the engine you came up with?

TW: We started with a blank sheet of paper at the beginning of my PhD. And the idea was to say, what could be created for the electric car industry in 10 or 15 years from now that they would need, that we could meet. Something that was lighter, more efficient, mass-producible in volume. In the 2000s, axial flux motors were not very common, but by combining axial flux technology and making a couple of little tweaks using some new materials, I basically stumbled into this new design which we call YASA: Yokeless And Segmented Armature. It takes what is a light topology in axial flux and makes it even lighter, about half as much again. There’s a benefit because the rotors are rotating at a bigger diameter. So, essentially torque is force times diameter, so for the same force, you get more torque. So if you double your diameter, you get double the torque for the same amount of materials. So that’s the benefit of axial flux.

TC: You’ve done this with deal with Mercedes – what’s next?

TW: We are basically a fully owned subsidiary. We’re going to utilize Mercedes’ industrialization powerhouse. But the key thing is, if you watch how technologies filter down in automotive, they start in the luxury sector, like the Ferraris and McLarens, and then filter down into mainstream sector and then go into higher volumes after that. That’s a space where Mercedes are world-class in terms of their industrialization, so that’s the kind of the idea behind the partnership.

TC: What else can you do from here?

TW: We will have a very high, high power, low density and lightweight engine so we can explore sport performance coupled with high levels of industrialization. That puts us in a really unique position for all sorts of things.

Although coy about his future plans, Woolmer is certainly one to watch in the EV and electric motor space. Post the acquisition YASA released this video:

Australia’s TechnologyOne acquires UK-based higher-ed platform Scientia for $16.6M

By Mike Butcher

TechnologyOne, an Australian SaaS enterprise, has agreed to acquire UK-based higher education software provider Scientia for £12 million /$16.6 million in cash.
 
TechnologyOne claims to have 75% of Higher Education institutions in Australia using its software, while Scientia claims 50% market share in the UK.

The acquisition includes an initial payment of £6m and further payments.
 
Adrian Di Marco, TechnologyOne founder and Executive Chairman said: “This is our company’s first international acquisition and it demonstrates our deep commitment to serving the higher education sector and the UK market. The unique IP and market-leading functionality of Scientia’s product supports our vision of delivering enterprise software that is incredibly easy to use.”

Commenting, Michelle Gillespie, Registrar and Director of Student Administration and Library Services at Swinburne University of Technology said: “The one thing that students care most about is their timetable. Being able to fully integrate a schedule into the full student experience is very important, and an exciting step for those universities – like Swinburne – that use TechnologyOne’s student management system.”

Botify raises $55 million to optimize search engine indexing

By Romain Dillet

Botify has raised a $55 million Series C funding round led by InfraVia Growth with Bpifrance’s Large Venture fund also participating. The company has created a search engine optimization (SEO) platform so that your content is better indexed and appears more often in search results.

Existing investors Eurazeo and Ventech are also investing in the startup once again. Nicolas Herschtel from InfraVia and Antoine Izsak from Bpifrance will join the board of directors. Valuation has tripled since the company’s previous funding round.

While there are a ton of good and bad practices in the SEO industry, Botify defines itself as “white-hat company”. They respect the terms of services of search engines, they don’t scrape search results for insights, they don’t create shady backlinks on other websites.

“We’re going to optimize every step of the search funnel from first the quality of the website, how it is designed, how is the content going to be enriched with, etc.” co-founder and CEO Adrien Menard told me.

There are now three different components in the Botify product suite. The startup first released an analytics tool that gives you insights about your website. Basically, it lets you see how a crawler analyzes your site.

The company then released Botify Intelligence, which hands you a prioritized todo list of things you can do to improve your SEO strategy. And now, the company is also working on automation with Botify Activation. When Google’s search engine bot queries your site, Botify can take over and answer requests directly.

“We’re not trying to trick Google’s algorithm. We’re defining Botify as the interface between search engines and our clients’ websites. Search engines are going to access higher quality content. And it’s probably cheaper than with a normal process,” Menard said.

Companies aren’t necessarily using all three tools. They may start with analytics and take it from there. “You can use different products depending on the size of the company,” Menard said.

Over the past few years, Google has increased the number of ad slots on search results. It also promotes its own services, such as YouTube and Google Maps, before you can see the organic search results. I asked Adrien Menard whether that could be a concern for the future of Botify.

“I agree with you that we’re seeing more and more sections of the search results coming from first-party or paid results,” he said. “But the traffic generated by organic results is growing. It represents 30% of the traffic of the websites of our customers and this average is not decreasing.”

According to him, search keeps getting bigger and bigger. When you invest in search, you can see a clear return on investment when it comes to online sales, traffic, etc.

Right now, Botify has 500 customers, such as Expedia, L’Oréal, The New York Times, Groupon, Marriott, Condé Nast, Crate & Barrel, Fnac Darty, Vestiaire Collective and Farfetch.

With today’s funding round, the company wants to improve its automation capabilities, sign partnerships with more tech companies and increase its footprint with new offices in the Asia-Pacific region.

Europe’s top court slaps down ‘zero rating’ again

By Natasha Lomas

Europe’s top court has dealt another blow to ‘zero rating’ — ruling for a second time that the controversial carrier practice goes against the European Union’s rules on open Internet access.

‘Zero rating’ refers to commercial offers that can be made by mobile network operators to entice customers by excluding the data consumption of certain (often popular) apps from a user’s tariff.

The practice is controversial because it goes against the ‘level playing field’ principle of the open Internet (aka ‘net neutrality’).

EU legislators passed the bloc’s first set of open Internet/net neutrality rules back in 2015 — with the law coming into application in 2016 — but critics warned at the time over vague provisions in the regulation which they suggested could be used by carriers to undermine the core fairness principle of treating all Internet traffic the same.

Some regional telcos have continued to put out zero rating offers — which has led to a number of challenges to test the robustness of the law. But the viability of zero rating within the EU must now be in doubt given the double slap-down by the CJEU.

In its first major decision last yearrelating to a challenge against Telenor in Hungary — the court found that commercial use of zero rating was liable to limit the exercise of end users’ rights within the meaning of the regulation.

Its ruling today — which relates to a challenge against zero rating by Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland in Germany (this time with a roaming component) — comes to what looks like an even clearer conclusion, with the court giving the practice very short shrift indeed.

“By today’s judgments, the Court of Justice notes that a ‘zero tariff’ option, such as those at issue in the main proceedings, draws a distinction within internet traffic, on the basis of commercial considerations, by not counting towards the basic package traffic to partner applications. Such a commercial practice is contrary to the general obligation of equal treatment of traffic, without discrimination or interference, as required by the regulation on open internet access,” it writes in a (notably brief) press release summarizing the judgement.

“Since those limitations on bandwidth, tethering or on use when roaming apply only on account of the activation of the ‘zero tariff’ option, which is contrary to the regulation on open internet access, they are also incompatible with EU law,” it added.

We’ve reached out to Vodafone and Telekom Deutschland for comment on the ruling.

In a statement welcoming the CJEU’s decision, the European consumer protection association BEUC’s senior digital policy officer, Maryant Fernández Pérez, subbed the ruling “very positive news for consumers and those who want the internet to stay open to all”.

“When companies like Vodafone use these ‘zero tariff’ rates, they essentially lock-in consumers and limit what the Internet can offer to them. Zero-rating is detrimental to consumer choice, competition, innovation, media diversity and freedom of information,” she added.

Station F launches FemTech Program on its startup campus

By Romain Dillet

Paris-based startup megacampus Station F is announcing a new program for early-stage startups looking for opportunities to join the Station F community — the FemTech Program. With this new program, the Station F team wants to put a spotlight on femtech startups and make it easier to start a femtech startup.

Station F is a massive building that used to be a rail freight depot. It has been completely renovated and it now acts as a flagship entity for the tech community in France. In addition to VC firms and public administrations, the startup campus has partnered with companies and universities so that they can run their own incubator at Station F.

And Station F also has its own programs operated by the Station F team. There’s the Fighters Program designed specifically for entrepreneurs coming from underprivileged backgrounds. And there’s the Founders Program for companies that are just getting started.

With the FemTech Program, Station F is adding a third in-house program. As the name suggests, the startup campus is looking for companies working on female health, women’s sexual health and more.

“When we looked at the topic, we thought it was both an opportunity and that startups urgently needed some help,” Station F director Roxanne Varza told me. “It’s still a little-known category, it’s still a taboo subject.”

While there are huge market opportunities when you build a femtech startup, entrepreneurs quickly realize that they have to overcome two obstacles. First, people in the tech ecosystem — and investors in particular — are still mostly men. They tend to overlook female-focused products and services.

Second, when VC firms raise money from bigger funds, limited partners usually have a set of vice clauses in their investment contracts. It means that most VC firms can’t invest in companies related to sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.

“Startups tell us about their problems. We would like to do some lobbying for those startups,” Varza told me. “The idea is really to create a community first. That was the major pain point, making sure that those startups can get together.”

Station F will also provide workshops, facilitate introductions with potential partners in the tech community at large and provide office hours. For instance, the founders of Clue and Ava will participate in upcoming workshops.

During the first half of 2021, Station F already selected a handful of femtech startups to try out its program. Startups included Intimately, TalQ, Puissante and Sonio. Applications for the first official batch start today on Station F’s website and will remain open for a month.


For reference, here’s the full list of startups that participated in the unannounced batch:

Intimately – Intimately sells lingerie for women with disabilities
Founded by Emma Butler

Guud – Guud offers support and products to women who want to improve their menstrual cycle and fertility
Founded by Morgane Leten & Jan Deruyck

Puissante – Sextoy brand to demystify masturbation and sexuality.
Founded by Marie Comacle

My S Life – My S Life is a digital companion to support women’s daily on their gynecologist and sexual health
Founded by Juliette Mauro

talm – talm is a responsible skincare brand that aims to support women before, during and after pregnancy.
Founded by Kenza Keller

TalQ – TalQ Univers wants to free speech about sexuality. For 72% of French people aged 18 to 34, sexuality is a taboo subject.
Founded by Manon Cauchoix & Camille Di Vincenzo

PERLA Health – PERLA Health is on a mission to redesign PCOS care and diagnostics
Founded by Kathrin Folkendt & Janine Kopp

Sonio – Sonio is an AI software for fetal ultrasound, helping practitioners analyse and diagnose congenital malformations
Founded by Cécile Brosset & Rémi Besson

WhatsApp faces $267M fine for breaching Europe’s GDPR

By Natasha Lomas

It’s been a long time coming but Facebook is finally feeling some heat from Europe’s much trumpeted data protection regime: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has just announced a €225 million (~$267M) for WhatsApp.

The Facebook-owned messaging app has been under investigation by the Irish DPC, its lead data supervisor in the European Union, since December 2018 — several months after the first complaints were fired at WhatsApp over how it processes user data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), once it begun being applied in May 2018.

Despite receiving a number of specific complaints about WhatsApp, the investigation undertaken by the DPC that’s been decided today was what’s known as an “own volition” enquiry — meaning the regulator selected the parameters of the investigation itself, choosing to fix on an audit of WhatsApp’s ‘transparency’ obligations.

A key principle of the GDPR is that entities which are processing people’s data must be clear, open and honest with those people about how their information will be used.

The DPC’s decision today (which runs to a full 266 pages) concludes that WhatsApp failed to live up to the standard required by the GDPR.

Its enquiry considered whether or not WhatsApp fulfils transparency obligations to both users and non-users of its service (WhatsApp may, for example, upload the phone numbers of non-users if a user agrees to it ingesting their phone book which contains other people’s personal data); as well as looking at the transparency the platform offers over its sharing of data with its parent entity Facebook (a highly controversial issue at the time the privacy U-turn was announced back in 2016, although it predated GDPR being applied).

In sum, the DPC found a range of transparency infringements by WhatsApp — spanning articles 5(1)(a); 12, 13 and 14 of the GDPR.

In addition to issuing a sizeable financial penalty, it has ordered WhatsApp to take a number of actions to improve the level of transparency it offer users and non-users — giving the tech giant a three-month deadline for making all the ordered changes.

In a statement responding to the DPC’s decision, WhatsApp disputed the findings and dubbed the penalty “entirely disproportionate” — as well as confirming it will appeal, writing:

“WhatsApp is committed to providing a secure and private service. We have worked to ensure the information we provide is transparent and comprehensive and will continue to do so. We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate. We will appeal this decision.” 

It’s worth emphasizing that the scope of the DPC enquiry which has finally been decided today was limited to only looking at WhatsApp’s transparency obligations.

The regulator was explicitly not looking into wider complaints — which have also been raised against Facebook’s data-mining empire for well over three years — about the legal basis WhatsApp claims for processing people’s information in the first place.

So the DPC will continue to face criticism over both the pace and approach of its GDPR enforcement.

…system to add years until this fine will actually be paid – but at least it's a start… 10k cases per year to go! 😜

— Max Schrems 🇪🇺 (@maxschrems) September 2, 2021

 

Indeed, prior to today, Ireland’s regulator had only issued one decision in a major cross-border cases addressing ‘Big Tech’ — against Twitter when, back in December, it knuckle-tapped the social network over a historical security breach with a fine of $550k.

WhatsApp’s first GDPR penalty is, by contrast, considerably larger — reflecting what EU regulators (plural) evidently consider to be a far more serious infringement of the GDPR.

Transparency is a key principle of the regulation. And while a security breach may indicate sloppy practice, systematic opacity towards people whose data your adtech empire relies upon to turn a fat profit looks rather more intentional; indeed, it’s arguably the whole business model.

And — at least in Europe — such companies are going to find themselves being forced to be up front about what they’re doing with people’s data.

Is GDPR working?  

The WhatsApp decision will rekindle the debate about whether the GDPR is working effectively where it counts most: Against the most powerful companies in the world, who are also of course Internet companies.

Under the EU’s flagship data protection regulation, decisions on cross border cases require agreement from all affected regulators — across the 27 Member States — so while the GDPR’s “one-stop-shop” mechanism seeks to streamline the regulatory burden for cross-border businesses by funnelling complaints and investigations via a lead regulator (typically where a company has its main legal establishment in the EU), objections can be raised to that lead supervisory authority’s conclusions (and any proposed sanctions), as has happened here, in this WhatsApp case.

Ireland originally proposed a far more low-ball penalty of up to €50M for WhatsApp. However other EU regulators objected to the draft decision on a number of fronts — and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) ultimately had to step in and take a binding decision (issued this summer) to settle the various disputes.

Through that (admittedly rather painful) joint-working, the DPC was required to increase the size of the fine issued to WhatsApp. In a mirror of what happened with its draft Twitter decision — where the DPC has also suggested an even tinier penalty in the first instance.

While there is a clear time cost in settling disputes between the EU’s smorgasbord of data protection agencies — the DPC submitted its draft WhatsApp decision to the other DPAs for review back in December, so it’s taken well over half a year to hash out all the disputes about WhatsApp’s lossy hashing and so forth — the fact that ‘corrections’ are being made to its decisions and conclusions can land — if not jointly agreed but at least arriving via a consensus being pushed through by the EDPB — is a sign that the process, while slow and creaky, is working.

Even so, Ireland’s data watchdog will continue to face criticism for its outsized role in handling GDPR complaints and investigations — with some accusing the DPC of essentially cherry-picking which issues to examine in detail (by its choice and framing of cases) and which to elide entirely (by those issues it doesn’t open an enquiry into or complaints it simply drops or ignores), with its loudest critics arguing it’s therefore still a major bottleneck on effective enforcement of data protection rights across the EU. And the associated conclusion for that critique is that tech giants like Facebook are still getting a pretty free pass to violate Europe’s privacy rules.

But while it’s true that a $267M penalty is still the equivalent of a parking ticket for Facebook, orders to change how such adtech giants are able to process people’s information have the potential to be a far more significant correction on problematic business models. Again, though, time will be needed to tell.

In a statement on the WhatsApp decision today, noyb — the privacy advocay group founded by long-time European privacy campaigner Max Schrems, said: We welcome the first decision by the Irish regulator. However, the DPC gets about ten thousand complaints per year since 2018 and this is the first major fine. The DPC also proposed an initial €50MK fine and was forced by the other European data protection authorities to move towards €225M, which is still only 0.08% of the turnover of the Facebook Group. The GDPR foresees fines of up to 4% of the turnover. This shows how the DPC is still extremely dysfunctional.”

Schrems also noted that he and noyb still have a number of pending cases before the DPC — including on WhatsApp.

In further remarks, Schrems and noyb said: “WhatsApp will surely appeal the decision. In the Irish court system this means that years will pass before any fine is actually paid. In our cases we often had the feeling that the DPC is more concerned with headlines than with actually doing the hard groundwork. It will be very interesting to see if the DPC will actually defend this decision fully, as it was basically forced to make this decision by its European counterparts. I can imagine that the DPC will simply not put many resources on the case or ‘settle’ with WhatsApp in Ireland. We will monitor this case closely to ensure that the DPC is actually following through with this decision.”

Report: India may be next in line to mandate changes to Apple’s in-app payment rules

By Ingrid Lunden

Summer is still technically in session, but a snowball is slowly developing in the world of apps, and specifically the world of in-app payments. A report in Reuters today says that the Competition Commission of India, the country’s monopoly regulator, will soon be looking at an antitrust suit filed against Apple over how it mandates that app developers use Apple’s own in-app payment system — thereby giving Apple a cut of those payments — when publishers charge users for subscriptions and other items in their apps.

The suit, filed by an Indian non-profit called “Together We Fight Society”, said in a statement to Reuters that it was representing consumer and startup interests in its complaint.

The move would be the latest in what has become a string of challenges from national regulators against app store operators — specifically Apple but also others like Google and WeChat — over how they wield their positions to enforce market practices that critics have argued are anti-competitive. Other countries that have in recent weeks reached settlements, passed laws, or are about to introduce laws include Japan, South Korea, Australia, the U.S. and the European Union.

And in India specifically, the regulator is currently working through a similar investigation as it relates to in-app payments in Android apps, which Google mandates use its proprietary payment system. Google and Android dominate the Indian smartphone market, with the operating system active on 98% of the 520 million devices in use in the country as of the end of 2020.

It will be interesting to watch whether more countries wade in as a result of these developments. Ultimately, it could force app store operators, to avoid further and deeper regulatory scrutiny, to adopt new and more flexible universal policies.

In the meantime, we are seeing changes happen on a country-by-country basis.

Just yesterday, Apple reached a settlement in Japan that will let publishers of “reader” apps (those for using or consuming media like books and news, music, files in the cloud and more) to redirect users to external sites to provide alternatives to Apple’s proprietary in-app payment provision. Although it’s not as seamless as paying within the app, redirecting previously was typically not allowed, and in doing so the publishers can avoid Apple’s cut.

South Korean legislators earlier this week approved a measure that will make it illegal for Apple and Google to make a commission by forcing developers to use their proprietary payment systems.

And last week, Apple also made some movements in the U.S. around allowing alternative forms of payments, but relatively speaking the concessions were somewhat indirect: app publishers can refer to alternative, direct payment options in apps now, but not actually offer them. (Not yet at least.)

Some developers and consumers have been arguing for years that Apple’s strict policies should open up more. Apple however has long said in its defense that it mandates certain developer policies to build better overall user experiences, and for reasons of security. But, as app technology has evolved, and consumer habits have changed, critics believe that this position needs to be reconsidered.

One factor in Apple’s defense in India specifically might be the company’s position in the market. Android absolutely dominates India when it comes to smartphones and mobile services, with Apple actually a very small part of the ecosystem.

As of the end of 2020, it accounted for just 2% of the 520 million smartphones in use in the country, according to figures from Counterpoint Research quoted by Reuters. That figure had doubled in the last five years, but it’s a long way from a majority, or even significant minority.

The antitrust filing in India has yet to be filed formally, but Reuters notes that the wording leans on the fact that anti-competitive practices in payments systems make it less viable for many publishers to exist at all, since the economics simply do not add up:

“The existence of the 30% commission means that some app developers will never make it to the market,” Reuters noted from the filing. “This could also result in consumer harm.”

Reuters notes that the CCI will be reviewing the case in the coming weeks before deciding whether it should run a deeper investigation or dismiss it. It typically does not publish filings during this period.

iPhone inside 30 mins? Germany’s Arive brings consumer brands to your door, raises €6M

By Mike Butcher

In Europe and the US we are very much getting used to groceries being delivered within 15 minutes, with a huge battleground of startups in the space. Startups across Europe and the US have raised no less than $3.1 billion in the last quarter alone for grocery deliveries within 10 or 20-minute delivery promises. But all are scrambling over a market where the average order size is pretty low. What if it was in the hundreds, and didn’t require refrigeration?

This is probably going to be the newest “15/30minute” consumer battleground, as high-end consumer goods come to last-mile deliveries.

The latest to Arive in this space is… arive – a German-based startup that delivers high-end consumer brands within 30 minutes. It’s now raised €6 million in seed funding from 468 Capital, La Famiglia VC and Balderton Capital.

But stacking its shelves with well-known brands and spinning up last-mile delivery logistics, Arive is offering fitness products, cosmetics, personal care, homeware, tech and fashion. Consumers order via an app, with the delivery coming via a bike-only fleet in 30-minutes or less.

The behavior it’s tapping into is already there. It seems the pandemic has made us all work and play from home, leaving foot traffic in inner cities still below pre-Covid levels.

Arive says it works directly with brands to offer a selection of their products for on-demand delivery, offering them a new distribution channel to a new type of customer that wants speed and convenience.

arive is currently available in Munich and has recently launched in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. The 30-minute delivery guarantee means it doesn’t need as many micro fulfillment centers as grocery players, helping it to keep infrastructure costs low.

Maximilian Reeker, co-founder of arive, said: “While the space for hyper-fast grocery delivery is increasingly crowded, we found the brands we love are still stuck in a three-day delivery scheme. For today’s time-poor consumers, this is too long.”

Bardo Droege, investor at 468 Capital, commented: “Our cities are dynamic, fast-moving places, and people living there want the tools and services that reflect their lifestyles so it’s no wonder the 15-minute groceries category has taken off so quickly. We’re confident the arive team will take this on.”

Stravito raises $14.6M to create a ‘Netflix for enterprise market research’

By Mike Butcher

Market research and insights are often underutilized assets for enterprises but it’s usually too hard to find content and there’s a lot of duplication, or information isn’t used well.

Swedish startup Stravito says it can centralize internal and external data sources and create something more akin to a ‘Spotify or Netflix’ for these kinds of assets, making them far more usable and consumable, they say.

It’s clearly onto something, since it’s now raised a €12.4million ($14.6million USD) series A funding round led by Endeit Capital, with additional investment from existing investors HenQ, Inventure and Creades. To date, Stravito has raised €20.1million ($23.7million USD).

Founded in 2017 by market research veterans and former iZettle employees, Stravito counts among its customers Carlsberg, Edwards Lifesciences, Pepsi Lipton, Danone, Electrolux and Comcast.

Thor Olof Philogène, CEO and co-founder at Stravito said: “It has never been more important for the world’s largest enterprises to understand and react to their customer’s changing behaviors using centralized, vetted company insights. Stravito’s technology and platform makes it fast and easy for companies to use research to make better decisions.”

On a call with me he added: “We provide a search technology, and a great design, all combined to deliver an intuitive, highly automated cloud service that allows these big companies to centralise internal and external data sources so they can pull out the nuggets they need.”

Jelle-Jan Bruinsma, Partner at Endeit Capital, added: “Endeit Capital is always looking for the next generation of international software scale-ups, and Stravito stood out in the Nordics through its impressive work to raise the bar in the multibillion dollar market research and data industry.”
Stravito also appointed Elaine Rodrigo, Chief Insights & Analytics Officer at Reckitt Benckiser, to its board of directors.

Stockeld Dreamery loves cheese so much that it raised $20M to make it out of legumes

By Christine Hall

Cheese is one of those foods that when you like it, you actually love it. It’s also one of the most difficult foods to make from something other than milk. Stockeld Dreamery not only took that task on, it has a product to show for it.

The Stockholm-based company announced Thursday its Series A round of $20 million co-led by Astanor Ventures and Northzone. Joining them in the round — which founder Sorosh Tavakoli told TechCrunch he thought was “the largest-ever Series A round for a European plant-based alternatives startup,” was Gullspång Re:food, Eurazeo, Norrsken VC, Edastra, Trellis Road and angel investors David Frenkiel and Alexander Ljung.

Tavakoli previously founded video advertising startup Videoplaza, and sold it to Ooyala in 2014. Looking for his next project, he said he did some soul-searching and wanted the next company to do something with an environmental impact. He ended up in the world of food, plant-based food, in particular.

“Removing the animal has a huge impact on land, water, greenhouse gases, not to mention the factory farming,” he told TechCrunch. “I identified that cheese is the worst. However, though people are keen on shifting their diet, when they try alternative products, they don’t like it.”

Tavakoli then went in search of a co-founder with a science background and met Anja Leissner, whose background is in biotechnology and food science. Together they started Stockeld in 2019.

Pär-Jörgen Pärson, general partner at Northzone, was an investor in Videoplaza and said via email that Stockeld Dreamery was the result of “the best of technology paired with the best of science,” and that Tavakoli and Leissner were “using their scientific knowledge and vision of the future and proposing a commercial application, which is very rare in the foodtech space, if not unique.”

The company’s first product, Stockeld Chunk, launched in May, but not without some trials and tribulations. The team tested over 1,000 iterations of their “cheese” product before finding a combination that worked, Tavakoli said.

Advances in the plant-based milk category have been successful for the most part, not necessarily because of the plant-based origins, but because they are tasty, he explained. Innovation is also progressing in meat, but cheese still proved difficult.

“They are typically made from starch and coconut oil, so you can have a terrible experience from the smell and the mouth feel can be rubbery, plus there is no protein,” Tavakoli added.

Stockeld wanted protein as the core ingredient, so Chunk is made using fermented legumes — pea and fava in this case — which gives the cheese a feta-like look and feel and contains 30% protein.

Chunk was initially launched with restaurants and chefs in Sweden. Within the product pipeline are spreadable and melting cheese that Tavakoli expects to be on the market in the next 12 months. Melting cheese is one of the hardest to make, but would open up the company as a potential pizza ingredient if successful, he said.

Including the latest round, Stockeld has raised just over $24 million to date. The company started with four employees and has now grown to 23, and Tavakoli intends for that to be 50 by the end of next year.

The new funding will enable the company to focus on R&D, to build out a pilot plant and to move into a new headquarters building next year in Stockholm. The company also looks to expand out of Sweden and into the U.S.

“We have ambitious investors who understand what we are trying to do,” Tavakoli said. “We have an opportunity to think big and plan accordingly. We feel we are in a category of our own in a sense that we are using legumes for protein. We are almost like a third fermented legumes category, and it is exciting to see where we can take it.”

Eric Archambeau, co-founder and partner at Astanor Ventures, is one of those investors. He also met Tavakoli at his former company and said via email that when he was pitched on the idea of creating “the next generation of plant-based cheese,” he was interested.

“From the start, I have been continuously impressed by the Stockeld team’s diligence, determination and commitment to creating a truly revolutionary and delicious product,” Archambeau added. “They created a product that breaks the mold and paves the way towards a new future for the global cheese industry.”

Cajoo raises $40 million for its instant grocery delivery service

By Romain Dillet

French startup Cajoo is raising some money in order to compete more aggressively in the new and highly competitive category of food delivery companies. Interestingly, the lead investor in today’s funding round is Carrefour, the supermarket giant. Headline (formerly e.ventures) is also participating in the round as well as existing investors Frst and XAnge.

Carrefour’s investment isn’t just a financial investment. Cajoo will take advantage of Carrefour’s purchasing organization. This way, Cajoo will be able to offer more products to its customers.

Cajoo is part of a group of startups that try to create a whole new category of grocery deliveries. The company operates dark stores and manages its own inventory of products. Customers can then order items without having to think whether they’ll be home when the delivery happens. Around 15 minutes later, a delivery person shows up with your groceries.

The startup competes with Getir, Gorillas, Flink, Zapp and a few others. It also indirectly competes with traditional retailers and their online ordering systems.

“It’s a category that is incredibly capital intensive,” co-founder and CEO Henri Capoul told me. “We own the entire value chain. If we want to expand, we have to launch hubs, we have to buy products.”

With $40 million on its bank account, Cajoo now wants to solidify its strong market position in its home country. The service is currently live in 10 French cities — Paris, Neuilly-sur-Seine, Levallois-Perret, Boulogne-Billancourt, Lille, Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Montpellier.

And yet, the company is already facing some competition in Paris for instance. But Henri Capoul sees it as market validation. “There are a lot of players that have raised a lot of money. But it’s a regulated market. We own all our products and we have to comply with regulation. We can’t sell everything at a loss,” he said.

While Henri Capoul expects some sort of consolidation down the road, the company is doing everything to remain a big, independent company. “European champions will be national champions first. Right now, some players can overcome a lack of products with discounts. I’m convinced that the future of this category will be represented by three or four local players that are strong in other countries.” Henri Capoul said.

Cajoo is currently the only French company operating at this scale in this category. So it’s clear that the company sees itself as a market leader in France first. But the company is already looking at other markets as well — Belgium, Italy, Spain, maybe Portugal or Eastern Europe countries.

But first, the company wants to grow its team. The number of employees working in the HQ is going to double by the end of the year. Operations and delivery teams will also grow quite drastically. The company expects a fivefold increase by the end of the year on this front.

Some delivery people are directly hired by Cajoo. But the company is also relying on partners — both contracting companies and freelancers. So the company faces some of the challenges that Deliveroo and Uber Eats also face.

Cajoo might be a great business idea, but users will have to ask themselves whether it really solves an important need or they’re just using it because it exists. Instant delivery companies could have a real impact on brick-and-mortar shops over the long run.

UK now expects compliance with children’s privacy design code

By Natasha Lomas

In the UK, a 12-month grace period for compliance with a design code aimed at protecting children online expires today — meaning app makers offering digital services in the market which are “likely” to be accessed by children (defined in this context as users under 18 years old) are expected to comply with a set of standards intended to safeguard kids from being tracked and profiled.

The age appropriate design code came into force on September 2 last year however the UK’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, allowed the maximum grace period for hitting compliance to give organizations time to adapt their services.

But from today it expects the standards of the code to be met.

Services where the code applies can include connected toys and games and edtech but also online retail and for-profit online services such as social media and video sharing platforms which have a strong pull for minors.

Among the code’s stipulations are that a level of ‘high privacy’ should be applied to settings by default if the user is (or is suspected to be) a child — including specific provisions that geolocation and profiling should be off by default (unless there’s a compelling justification for such privacy hostile defaults).

The code also instructs app makers to provide parental controls while also providing the child with age-appropriate information about such tools — warning against parental tracking tools that could be used to silently/invisibly monitor a child without them being made aware of the active tracking.

Another standard takes aim at dark pattern design — with a warning to app makers against using “nudge techniques” to push children to provide “unnecessary personal data or weaken or turn off their privacy protections”.

The full code contains 15 standards but is not itself baked into legislation — rather it’s a set of design recommendations the ICO wants app makers to follow.

The regulatory stick to make them do so is that the watchdog is explicitly linking compliance with its children’s privacy standards to passing muster with wider data protection requirements that are baked into UK law.

The risk for apps that ignore the standards is thus that they draw the attention of the watchdog — either through a complaint or proactive investigation — with the potential of a wider ICO audit delving into their whole approach to privacy and data protection.

“We will monitor conformance to this code through a series of proactive audits, will consider complaints, and take appropriate action to enforce the underlying data protection standards, subject to applicable law and in line with our Regulatory Action Policy,” the ICO writes in guidance on its website. “To ensure proportionate and effective regulation we will target our most significant powers, focusing on organisations and individuals suspected of repeated or wilful misconduct or serious failure to comply with the law.”

It goes on to warn it would view a lack of compliance with the kids’ privacy code as a potential black mark against (enforceable) UK data protection laws, adding: “If you do not follow this code, you may find it difficult to demonstrate that your processing is fair and complies with the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] or PECR [Privacy and Electronics Communications Regulation].”

Tn a blog post last week, Stephen Bonner, the ICO’s executive director of regulatory futures and innovation, also warned app makers: “We will be proactive in requiring social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and the gaming industry to tell us how their services are designed in line with the code. We will identify areas where we may need to provide support or, should the circumstances require, we have powers to investigate or audit organisations.”

“We have identified that currently, some of the biggest risks come from social media platforms, video and music streaming sites and video gaming platforms,” he went on. “In these sectors, children’s personal data is being used and shared, to bombard them with content and personalised service features. This may include inappropriate adverts; unsolicited messages and friend requests; and privacy-eroding nudges urging children to stay online. We’re concerned with a number of harms that could be created as a consequence of this data use, which are physical, emotional and psychological and financial.”

“Children’s rights must be respected and we expect organisations to prove that children’s best interests are a primary concern. The code gives clarity on how organisations can use children’s data in line with the law, and we want to see organisations committed to protecting children through the development of designs and services in accordance with the code,” Bonner added.

The ICO’s enforcement powers — at least on paper — are fairly extensive, with GDPR, for example, giving it the ability to fine infringers up to £17.5M or 4% of their annual worldwide turnover, whichever is higher.

The watchdog can also issue orders banning data processing or otherwise requiring changes to services it deems non-compliant. So apps that chose to flout the children’s design code risk setting themselves up for regulatory bumps or worse.

In recent months there have been signs some major platforms have been paying mind to the ICO’s compliance deadline — with Instagram, YouTube and TikTok all announcing changes to how they handle minors’ data and account settings ahead of the September 2 date.

In July, Instagram said it would default teens to private accounts — doing so for under 18s in certain countries which the platform confirmed to us includes the UK — among a number of other child-safety focused tweaks. Then in August, Google announced similar changes for accounts on its video charing platform, YouTube.

A few days later TikTok also said it would add more privacy protections for teens. Though it had also made earlier changes limiting privacy defaults for under 18s.

Apple also recently got itself into hot water with the digital rights community following the announcement of child safety-focused features — including a child sexual abuse material (CSAM) detection tool which scans photo uploads to iCloud; and an opt in parental safety feature that lets iCloud Family account users turn on alerts related to the viewing of explicit images by minors using its Messages app.

The unifying theme underpinning all these mainstream platform product tweaks is clearly ‘child protection’.

And while there’s been growing attention in the US to online child safety and the nefarious ways in which some apps exploit kids’ data — as well as a number of open probes in Europe (such as this Commission investigation of TikTok, acting on complaints) — the UK may be having an outsized impact here given its concerted push to pioneer age-focused design standards.

The code also combines with incoming UK legislate which is set to apply a ‘duty of care’ on platforms to take a rboad-brush safety-first stance toward users, also with a big focus on kids (and there it’s also being broadly targeted to cover all children; rather than just applying to kids under 13s as with the US’ COPPA, for example).

In the blog post ahead of the compliance deadline expiring, the ICO’s Bonner sought to take credit for what he described as “significant changes” made in recent months by platforms like Facebook, Google, Instagram and TikTok, writing: “As the first-of-its kind, it’s also having an influence globally. Members of the US Senate and Congress have called on major US tech and gaming companies to voluntarily adopt the standards in the ICO’s code for children in America.”

“The Data Protection Commission in Ireland is preparing to introduce the Children’s Fundamentals to protect children online, which links closely to the code and follows similar core principles,” he also noted.

And there are other examples in the EU: France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, looks to have been inspired by the ICO’s approach — issuing its own set of right child-protection focused recommendations this June (which also, for example, encourage app makers to add parental controls with the clear caveat that such tools must “respect the child’s privacy and best interests”).

The UK’s focus on online child safety is not just making waves overseas but sparking growth in a domestic compliance services industry.

Last month, for example, the ICO announced the first clutch of GDPR certification scheme criteria — including two schemes which focus on the age appropriate design code. Expect plenty more.

Bonner’s blog post also notes that the watchdog will formally set out its position on age assurance this autumn — so it will be providing further steerage to organizations which are in scope of the code on how to tackle that tricky piece, although it’s still not clear how hard a requirement the ICO will support, with Bonner suggesting it could be actually “verifying ages or age estimation”. Watch that space. Whatever the recommendations are, age assurance services are set to spring up with compliance-focused sales pitches.

Children’s safety online has been a huge focus for UK policymakers in recent years, although the wider (and long in train) Online Safety (neé Harms) Bill remains at the draft law stage.

An earlier attempt by UK lawmakers to bring in mandatory age checks to prevent kids from accessing adult content websites — dating back to 2017’s Digital Economy Act — was dropped in 2019 after widespread criticism that it would be both unworkable and a massive privacy risk for adult users of porn.

But the government did not drop its determination to find a way to regulate online services in the name of child safety. And online age verification checks look set to be — if not a blanket, hardened requirement for all digital services — increasingly brought in by the backdoor, through a sort of ‘recommended feature’ creep (as the ORG has warned). 

The current recommendation in the age appropriate design code is that app makers “take a risk-based approach to recognising the age of individual users and ensure you effectively apply the standards in this code to child users”, suggesting they: “Either establish age with a level of certainty that is appropriate to the risks to the rights and freedoms of children that arise from your data processing, or apply the standards in this code to all your users instead.” 

At the same time, the government’s broader push on online safety risks conflicting with some of the laudable aims of the ICO’s non-legally binding children’s privacy design code.

For instance, while the code includes the (welcome) suggestion that digital services gather as little information about children as possible, in an announcement earlier this summer UK lawmakers put out guidance for social media platforms and messaging services — ahead of the planned Online Safety legislation — that recommends they prevent children from being able to use end-to-end encryption.

That’s right; the government’s advice to data-mining platforms — which it suggests will help prepare them for requirements in the incoming legislation — is not to use ‘gold standard’ security and privacy (e2e encryption) for kids.

So the official UK government messaging to app makers appears to be that, in short order, the law will require commercial services to access more of kids’ information, not less — in the name of keeping them ‘safe’. Which is quite a contradiction vs the data minimization push on the design code.

The risk is that a tightening spotlight on kids privacy ends up being fuzzed and complicated by ill-thought through policies that push platforms to monitor kids to demonstrate ‘protection’ from a smorgasbord of online harms — be it adult content or pro-suicide postings, or cyber bullying and CSAM.

The law looks set to encourage platforms to ‘show their workings’ to prove compliance — which risks resulting in ever closer tracking of children’s activity, retention of data — and maybe risk profiling and age verification checks (that could even end up being applied to all users; think sledgehammer to crack a nut). In short, a privacy dystopia.

Such mixed messages and disjointed policymaking seem set to pile increasingly confusing — and even conflicting — requirements on digital services operating in the UK, making tech businesses legally responsible for divining clarity amid the policy mess — with the simultaneous risk of huge fines if they get the balance wrong.

Complying with the ICO’s design standards may therefore actually be the easy bit.

 

Sphere raises $2M to help employees lobby for green 401(k) plans

By Mike Butcher

In the United States, a 401(k) plan is an employer-sponsored defined-contribution pension account. However, with legacy institutional investing, most of these have at least some level of fossil fuel involvement and let’s face it, very few of us really know. Now a startup plans to change that.

California-based startup Sphere wants to get employees to ask their employers for investment options that are not invested in fossil fuels. To do that it’s offering financial products that make it easier – it says – for employers to offer fossil-free investment options in their 401(k) plans. This could be quite a big movement. Sphere says there are over $35 trillion in assets in retirement savings in the US as of Q1 2021.

It’s now raised a $2M funding round led by climatetech-focused VC Pale Blue Dot led the investment round. Also participating were climate-focused investors including Sundeep Ahuja of Climate Capital. Sphere is also a registered ‘Public Benefit Corporation’ allowing it to campaign in public about climate change.

Alex Wright-Gladstein, CEO and founder of Sphere said: “We are proud to be partnering with Pale Blue Dot on our mission to reverse climate change by making our money talk. Heidi, Hampus, and Joel have the experience and drive to help us make big changes on the short 7 year time scale that we have to limit warming to 1.5°C.” Wright-Gladstein has also teamed up with sustainable investing veteran Jason Britton of Reflection Asset Management and BITA custom indexes.

Wright-Gladstein said she learned the difficulty of offering fossil-free options in 401(k) plans when running her previous startup, Ayar Labs. She tried to offer a fossil-free option for employees, but found out it took would take three years to get a single fossil-free option in the plan.

Heidi Lindvall, General Partner at Pale Blue Dot said: “We are big believers in Sphere’s unique approach of raising awareness through a social movement while offering a range of low-cost products that address the structural issues in fossil-free 401(k) investing.”

Google appeals ‘disproportionate’ French copyright, talks fine

By Natasha Lomas

Google is appealing the more than half a billion-dollar fine it got slapped with by France’s competition authority in July.

The penalty relates to the adtech giant’s approach toward paying news publishers for content reuse.

In a statement today, Sebastien Missoffe, a Google France VP and country manager, characterized the fine as “disproportionate” — claiming that the $592 million penalty is not justified in light of Google’s “efforts” to cut a deal with news publishers and comply with updated copyright rules. Which reads like fairly weak sauce, as defence statements go.

“We are appealing the French Competition Authority’s decision which relates to our negotiations between April and August 2020. We disagree with a number of legal elements, and believe that the fine is disproportionate to our efforts to reach an agreement and comply with the new law,” wrote Missoffe, adding: “Irrespective of this, we recognize neighboring rights and we continue to work hard to resolve this case and put deals in place. This includes expanding offers to 1,200 publishers, clarifying aspects of our contracts, and we are sharing more data as requested by the French Competition Authority in their July Decision.”

Back in 2019, the European Union agreed on an update to digital copyright rules which extended cover to the ledes of news stories — snippets of which aggregators such as Google News had for years routinely scraped and displayed.

Individual EU Member States then needed to transpose the updated pan-EU reforms into their national laws — with France leading the pack to do so.

The country’s competition watchdog has also been leading the charge in enforcing updated rules against Google — ordering the tech giant to negotiate with publishers last year and following that up with a whopping fine when publishers complained to it about how Google was treating those talks.

Announcing the penalty this summer, the Autorité de la Concurrence accused the tech giant of attempting to unilaterally impose a global news licensing product it operates upon local publishers in a bid to avoid having to put a separate financial value on neighbouring rights remuneration — where there is a legal requirement (under EU and French law) upon it to negotiate with said publishers…

The watchdog’s full list of grievances against Google’s modus operandi was very long — check out our earlier report here — so it’s not clear how much of a placeholder action this appeal by Google is.

Per Reuters, the Autorité has said the appeal will not hold up the penalty nor impede the timeline of the order it already issued — which, in mid July, gave Google a two month timeframe to revise its offer and provide publishers with all the required info, with the threat of daily fines (of €900,000) if it failed to meet all its requirements by then. So there are now only a couple of weeks to go before that deadline.

Google may thus be hoping that by announcing an appeal now it will help ‘concentrate’ publishers’ minds — and encourage them to accept — whatever tweaked offer it comes up with, hence its statement noting an ‘expanded’ offer (now covering 1,200 publishers), and talk of “clarifying aspects of our contracts” and “sharing more data”, all of which were areas where Google got roundly spanked by the Autorité. 

LastPad is a reusable menstrual pad that does away with disposable towels

By Natasha Lomas

Direct to consumer online sales have helped a number of female-focused startups get products to market in recent years — often pitching better designed and generally more thoughtful feminine hygiene products than mainstream staples.

The lack of innovation in the mainstream market for feminine hygiene has certainly created a gap for startups to address. Examples in recent years include companies like Thinx (absorbent panties for menstruation) and Flex (a disc-shaped tampon alternative for wearing during sex). Or Daye — which makes CBD tampons for simultaneously treating period cramps.

Even so, there still hasn’t been a critical mass of product innovation in the category — to the point where alternatives can trickle down (no pun intended) and influence the trajectory of the mainstream market. The core products on shelves are, all too often, depressingly familiar — disposable pads and tampons — even if they may (sometimes) now be made of organic cotton or have some other mild design tweaks.

The most notable change to the available product mix is probably period pants — which have recently started to appear on mainstream shop shelves and seem to be selling well in markets like the UK, as the Guardian reported recently.

In the average drug store, the other non-disposable alternative you’ll most likely see is the menstrual cup. Which is not at all new — but has finally got traction beyond its original (very) niche community of users, which is another signal that consumers are more open to trying different solutions to deal with their monthly bleeding vs the same old throwaway wadding.

While free bleeding — an old movement which has also seen a bit of wider pick up in recent years — can also be seen, at least in part, as a protest against the poor quality of mainstream products for periods.

All of which makes this forthcoming product launch rather interesting: Meet LastPad, a reusable (rather than disposable) sanitary towel.

Image credits: LastPad

The first thing you’ll likely notice is that the pad is black in color — which certainly rings the changes vs the usual white stick-on fodder. The company behind LastPad says it worked with an unnamed “luxury lingerie manufacture” on look and feel — and, well, judging by the product shots alone it shows.

The bigger behind-the-scenes change is that it’s been designed for sustained, repeat usage. So each LastPad comes with its own fabric pouch (in a range of colors) for folding up and storing after use (and until you get a chance to pop it in the wash). The pad can also stay in its pouch for washing so there’s no need for additional handling until you’re getting it out of the washing machine to dry.

LastPad is the brainchild of Danish designer and entrepreneur Isabel Aagaard whose company, LastObject, has — for the past three years — been taking aim at the wastefulness of single use hygiene and beauty products, designing reusable alternatives for what are unlovely but practical items — like Q-Tips and tissues*.

In total, LastObject has sold around 1.5M products so far — across its existing range of beauty, hygiene and travel-focused items. But LastPad marks its first push into a really female-focused product category.

A reusable (washable) sanitary pad is clearly a big step up on the design challenge front vs making reusable (silicone) Q-Tips or (cotton) tissues or makeup rounds — because of the complexity involved with designing a wearable, intimate hygiene product that can handle the variable and often messy nature of periods, and keep doing so, use after use.

It needs to be both comfortable and reliable — as so many disposable pads actually aren’t.

So it’s not too surprising that, per Aagaard, the company has been working on designing and prototyping LastPad for two years. Now they’re finally ready to bring it to market — launching the LastPad on Kickstarter today — with a goal of shipping to early backers next February.

“We’re seeing amazing conversions [for the LastPad pre-campaign],” she says, discussing how much demand they’re expecting. “This is our sixth [crowdfunder] campaign — and it’s looking really good. So I think the demand is bigger than I actually imagined. Because this is also the first product that is only women. And we were very much in doubt that we should put it on Kickstarter because it’s a very male-dominated platform but it’s looking really positive.”

“We already started working on this two years ago so it’s really been a process. And also because we wanted it to be really innovative. Because right now you can see on the market there’ll be pads that are more like home sewn or do it yourself — and we wanted to really make an exclusive, very, very innovative version of that — that has a lot of the benefits that the single use version has.”

Image credits: LastPad

Each LastPad is made up of three layers: A woven top to help keep the pad feeling dry against the skin by quickly funnelling menstrual fluids down into — layer two — a central absorbent section (made of bamboo) — which sits above a TPU base to ensure no risk of leaks.

“The first layer is a woven material that is really, really fine — it has a little bit of silver in it so that the odours will disappear. It’s also woven with small funnels so that the blood disappears very quickly into the middle layer — because it’s so important that you’re not like wet. Because that’s awful. So it dries quite quickly when you’re wearing it,” explains Aagaard. “And then the middle layer is 100% bamboo — it’s absorbent like crazy; 40% more absorbent than, for example, cotton. And it also has anti-bacterial properties. And then the bottom layer is a TPU [Thermoplastic Polyurethane] — which is just a leak proof cover; it’s comfortable, it’s not like a plastic bag but it does make sure that you cannot bleed through it.”

While disposable sanitary towels rely on an adhesive layer to enable the consumer fix the pad to their panties, LastPad has to do that a bit differently too given it’ll be going through the wash. So the pads have wings — which wrap around the gusset of the panties and fix together underneath with a (soft) velcro fastening.

That’s not all: There’s a (sticky) silicone strip running around the back side of the pad which helps prevent it from moving around — and, per Aagaard, will happily survive repeat washing (in fact if it’s not used for a time, she says dust may temporarily reduce the stickiness — but says that immediately resolves just by wetting it again).

“Where I felt that we really made a huge difference is that on the back side of the pad — it has wings [with] a velcro [fastener] that’s completely soft and you don’t feel it; even if you’re biking — that was like the big test — and then it has a silicone strip in the back and at the bottom, like a sticky silicone… so it doesn’t move around in your pants.”

Practically speaking, it won’t be possible for a LastPad user to use just one LastPad to see them through their period — given the need to wash and dry them between uses. So a pack of several reusable pads will be necessary to entirely replace disposable pads and ensure there’s always a clean towel available to swap out the used pad.

But LastObject’s idea is, much like you own several pairs of socks and briefs, you’ll have a set of LastPads to see you through until after laundry day.

The product comes in three different sizes and thicknesses to cater to different flow levels, too. So the consumer may end up owning a range of reusable LastPads — from a panty liner option to a day flow and heavier duty night pads.

Image credits: LastPad

“It wasn’t as simple as I thought it was going to be — but that’s also because you have to understand the viscoses of blood, for example, compared to water,” Aagaard tells TechCrunch. “And also a flow — it’s not just blood. There’s a lot of other stuff that come out. So it’s taking all of these things into consideration.”

“We’ve been testing it for so long,” she goes on. “That was our main thing with this product. A lot of the other [LastObject products] were very much about printing it, looking at it. Using it of course — but it took us long before we had it in actually a silicone form. Because that is also expensive. Whereas [LastPad] we could sew quite quickly just here at the office and [test it]… So we’ve just been testing it constantly — how’s the feeling? Getting it out to a lot of different women that wear different panties that have different cycles. So it’s really been about testing.”

Pricing for LastPad will be around $60 for three pads — so around $20 per pad. Which is obviously a lot more expensive than the per unit cost of disposable towels. But LastObject says it will offer packs so if a consumer buys more pads it should shrink the per pad cost a little.

Aagaard says the product has been tested to withstand at least 240 washes — which she suggests will mean it’s able to last at least a couple of years, saving likely hundreds of disposable pads from being consumed in its stead.

Although it’s maybe less likely to save consumers money — depending on which disposable pads you’d buy and how many you’d used per cycle (basic disposable pads can cost as little as ~20c each) — as LastObject recommends owning nine of its LastPads which could cost around $80 or more). But the target user is evidently someone with enough disposable income to be able to pay a premium for an eco alternative.

Given the price-point, it does also look more expensive than the menstrual cup — an existing and highly practical alternative to disposable menstrual products — which can cost around $30 (for one reusable cup; and you can get away with owning just one) and, typically, a cup will also last for years as it’s made of silicone.

However the menstrual cup won’t suit every woman — and does require access to clean water to rinse and sanitize — so having more non-disposable alternatives for periods is great.

Aagaard says she’s a fan of the menstrual cup but suggests LastPad can still be useful for its users as a back-up to catch any leaks and/or provide an added layer of reassurance.

While, with period pants, she says the issue she finds unpleasant is the feeling of wetness when wearing them.

On LastPad’s environmental credentials, the washing process required to keep reusing the pad does obviously require some resources (water, soap etc) but — as is the case with other LastObject products — the company’s claim is that it’s still substantially greener to wash and reuse its non-disposable products vs consuming and binning single use items that have to be continually produced and shipped out (generating ongoing CO2). Such products can also pollute the environment after they’ve been thrown away — and plastic waste is of course a huge global problem (including from thrown away sanitary products).

LastObject will be publishing a third party LCA (lifecycle assessment) for LastPad to back up its eco claims for the reusable product — comparing it to using disposable sanitary pads. But Aagaard is confident it will be substantially better when compared against most disposable alternatives.

“You’ll be putting a wash on anyway; [LastPads] don’t take up that much space; you’re not going to wash them just them; it is with your other laundry; and if you wash them at a cold wash I think that the LCA report will look really good,” she suggests when we ask about the eco credentials.

“We’re doing this with all our products where we’re taking them through a third party who’s testing everything and putting them up against [alternatives] and having these considerations with CO2, with water, with chemicals — with the whole pack… So we’ll be doing that more specifically; right now… the alternative of a [disposable] pad — they are so differently produced. It’s crazy. So I could say the worst [for comparative purposes] or I could say the best — and ours is about 12x better than that.”

“When we got the LCA report for the LastTissue and LastSwab they were so much better than I have imagined,” she adds.

From this year the European Union has started banning the sale of some single use plastic items (such as Q-tips and disposable cutlery) as reducing plastic waste is one of the goals for regional lawmakers. And — globally — regulators are increasingly looking for quick wins to shrink the environmental impact of the fast moving consumer goods market’s long standing love affair with plastic.

But some disposable product categories are simply more essential than others — which makes it hard for lawmakers to just ban plenty of wasteful, polluting products. So developing innovative, reusable alternatives is one way to help lighten the usage load.

“The most sustainable pad that you can ever have is actually the one that you don’t produce but that would just be free bleeding — and I think that 99% of women are not ready for that,” adds Aagaard. “So can we make some solutions on some of the things that we actually have to take care of?”

While LastObject is sticking with Kickstarter to get LastPad to market, Aagaard confirms that once they see how much early adopter demand it’s getting they plan to produce enough to also sell via some of the other outlets where they currently sell their products — such as ecommerce sites like Amazon and of course their own web shop.

So far, the US has been the main market for LastObject’s reusable wares, per Aagaard — which she attributes to mostly using Kickstarter to build a community of users. But she adds that the company is starting to see more traction in Europe as it’s increased the number of regional distributors it works with.

So what’s next for the company after LastPad? The product direction they’ll take is an active discussion, she says.

“We can keep going the beauty way, we can go more personal care but we have to also [not] go in too many directions. I personally have a lot of fun things I want to do in the bathroom still, because I feel like it’s a space where not a lot of designers have actually really been investigating some of the products that we’re using. Both in beauty but also in personal care. Like in the floss and toothbrush but also in diapers and wipes and all of that. So I think that there’s some innovation that could be really fun. But… this one took two years and I’m so happy about the result and I couldn’t have spent two months less on it. Then we wouldn’t have had the solutions that we’ve gotten to. So that feels very important.”

Image credits: LastPad

*Washable tissues are also of course not new. Indeed, Wikipedia credits the invention of pocket squares to wipe the nose to King Richard II of England who reigned in the 14th century. But the traditional (fabric) handkerchief — which was used, laundered and reused — became yet another casualty of the switch to single-use, disposable, cheap consumer goods that’s since been shown to have such high environmental costs. So perhaps reversing this damaging default will bring more ‘historical product innovation’ back into fashion as societies look to apply a modern ‘circular economy’ lens

 

Danish startups Responsibly raises $2M to benchmark supply chains on climate, diversity

By Mike Butcher

If the world is to reach NetZero, and avoid climate disaster it needs to make every product sustainable and that means every purchase. But to do that you need a lot more transparency, so that means more data on suppliers to improve sourcing and benchmarking companies. While companies are often doing their best, the problem with issues like CO2 emissions lies in the supply chain.

Danish startup Responsibly, reckons it has the answers in providing retailers, builders, and others with a supply network a scorecard against this supply chain of providers. Thus, a company can check if any level of its supply chain is involved in deforestation, water pollution, as well as human rights violations or gender pay gap issues.

It’s now raised a $2 million pre-seed investment round led by Flash Ventures. Also participating is Pirate Impact (the family-office of Fabian & Ferry Heilemann) and Michael Wax, Founder and CEO of Planetly Benedikt Franke.

The startup will now soft-launch the first version of its platform which will look at the supplier data of more than 10,000 suppliers for pilot customers.

Responsibly’s co-Founder and CEO Thomas Buch Andersson said: “If we can make it as easy for purchasers to evaluate how their suppliers compare on a planetary agenda, as it is to compare them on price, then we think we can unlock the huge force for change that’s sitting in the world’s procurement departments.”

Being developed with Google’s Startup Advisor: Sustainable Development Goals Program, Responsibly

Johann Nordhus Westarp, Founding Partner at Flash Ventures said: “The timing is perfect, and companies will fundamentally change the way they procure in the next couple of years. Price- or value-driven procurement will give way to impact-driven procurement. Companies are acting somewhat blindly today, treading-water to solve the ‘problem of the day’. Responsibly helps them finally get visibility into their procurement footprints and make forward-thinking decisions for all the right reasons.”

According to CDP, some 40% of global GHG emissions are driven or influenced companies through their purchases and the products they sell. Meanwhile, Gartner found that 23% of supply chain leaders expect to have a digital ecosystem by 2025, up from only 1% today.

Speaking to me over a call Buch Andersson said: “The space for responsible sourcing has really evolved quite a lot over the past 20 years. We are building a layer on top of all of the different data providers to essentially allow the procurement team to flexibly read any information, interpret it and then use it for sourcing decision making.”

Responsibly competes with EcoVadis and Integrity Next.

“Autonomous accounting” platform Vic.ai raises $50M round led by ICONIQ Growth

By Mike Butcher

Vic.ai, a startup that has built an AI-based platform it claims can ‘automate’ enterprise accounting, has raised a $50M Series B round led by ICONIQ Growth, with participation from existing investors GGV Capital, Cowboy Ventures and Costanoa Ventures, bringing total capital raised to $63 million.

The company’s customers include HSB (Sweden’s largest real-estate management company), Intercom Inc. and HireQuest Inc., as well as accounting firms KPMG, PwC, BDO, and Armanino LLP. Vic.ai says its platform has processed more than 535 million invoices with 95 percent accuracy.

Vic.ai says it can do this by learning from historical data and existing processes to deliver more automation in accounting processes thus saving time, reducing errors and duplicates.

Alexander Hagerup, CEO of Vic.ai (launched in 2017) said: “It’s 2021, and it’s high time for finance and accounting teams to embrace AI technology. Accounting work is tedious and repetitive, but it no longer needs to be. Our AI platform delivers both autonomy and intelligence for finance and accounting teams.”

Will Griffith, founding partner at ICONIQ Growth said Vic.ai team “demonstrates the same passion, product focus and customer-first mentality that we see in other exceptional founders.”

Vector design tool Vectornator raises $20M round led by EQT Ventures

By Mike Butcher

It’s an age-old tech industry story: company comes up with a tool to solve its own problem, then realizes the tool is actually worth more than the existing company. Something similar happened to Linearity. Its 17-year-old founder, Vladimir Danila, came up with the Vectornator tool to make vector design easier in 2017. It’s now used by Apple, Disney, Wacom and Microsoft. Disney uses Vectornator to create artwork for hotels in Disneyland, in fact.

The vector-focused platform has now raised a $20 million funding round led by EQT Ventures together with 468 Capital. It’s been joined by Angels including Bradley Horowitz (VP Product, Google), Jonathan Rochelle (Co-Founder Google Docs, Google Spreadsheets, Google Slides, Google Drive), Charles Songhurst (Ex. Corporate Strategy, Microsoft) and Lutz Finger (Group Product Manager, Google). 
 
The company says the funding will be used to double down on its mobile-first product, Vectornator, adding AI-powered automation and collaboration features, and new products and expand in the USA and Europe as well as Asia. 
 
Vladimir Danila, CEO and founder at Linearity said: “When I first got into design aged 10 over a decade ago, I found the tools hard to use and intimidating. I immediately wanted to create my own suite of tools to solve that issue as vectors become more relevant than pixels and are also superior in every aspect except for photography. Vectornator is all about customer experience, simplicity and not overcomplicating the software. I’m thrilled to be working alongside Ted and the team to glean knowledge and market understanding and help to grow our platform.”

Ted Persson, Partner at EQT Ventures commented: “For me, there were two clear sides to joining forces with the Linearity team. Vladimir is a very clear-cut founder who has built an outstanding product. Design tools are some of the hardest tools to build, but Vladimir and his team have shown that anything is possible.”

Investor interest in design tools has exploded since the success of Canva, which is now valued at $15 billion.

CoachHub raises $80M in Series “B2” round, as coaching goes digital in the pandemic

By Mike Butcher

The world of professional coaching has grown over the years as coaches realised they could easily counsel people remotely and clients realized digital coaching was far more efficient. But, equally, a problem arose in how to sift the wheat from the chaff. At the same time corporates realised that their own staff could benefit – but faced the same sifting problem. In a classic Internet play, CoachHub came along three years ago and applied AI to a marketplace to do the sifting. All well and good, but with training and personal development going almost completely digital due to the pandemic, the market has exploded.

Berlin-based CoachHub has now raised $80m in a Series “B2” funding, increasing its total Series B capital to $110m. Investors Draper Esprit, RTP Global, HV Capital, Signals Venture Capital, Partech, and Speedinvest all participated bringing the total funds raised to $130m, since 2019.

Last year it raised a $30 million Series B round, also led by Draper Esprit, alongside existing investors HV Capital, Partech, Speedinvest, signals Venture Capital, and RTP Global.

The startup competes with other aggregators such as AceUp out of Boston, which has raised $2.3M.
 
The three year old startup says it has tripled its employees, and added new clients including Fujitsu, Electrolux, Babbel, ViacomCBS and KPMG.
 
Co-founder and Chief Sales Director Yannis Niebelschütz said in a statement: “This latest round of funding will allow us to meet the ever-growing demand for digital solutions for training and personal development, which has been triggered by the pandemic.”
 
Christoph Hornung, investment director at Draper Esprit said: “It’s no longer just about the pandemic. What we are increasingly seeing with digital-first, highly enriched platforms such as CoachHub are more dynamic and – crucially – more accessible tools to transform companies through training and education.”
 
CoachHub says it uses AI to match individuals with 2,500 business and well-being coaches in 70 countries across six continents. Coaching sessions are available in 60+ languages.

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