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Sorbet raises $6M seed led by Viola Ventures to tackle the thorny financials of paid time off

By Mike Butcher

A US/Israeli startup, Sorbet — which is tackling what companies do with the financial risks as employees accrue Paid Time Off (PTO) — has raised $6 million in a Seed funding round led by Viola Ventures, with participation by Global Founders Capital, Meron Capital.

The economics of Paid Time Off is relatively hidden in the business world, but essentially,
Sorbet takes on the burden of this PTO from employers and then allows employees to spend it. This gives the employers far more control over the whole process and the ability to forecast its impact on the business.

Sorbet says that in the US, employees use only 72% PTO balances, even though it’s the most sought-after benefit. But this, effectively, comes out at 768 million unused days off a year, worth around $224 billion. This creates a difficult problem for CFO’s and accountants because its creates balance sheet liabilities on the company’s books, says Sorbet. If the employee doesn’t use all of their PTO, the employer can end up owing them a lot of money which creates a cash flow liability on the company’s books. So Sorbet buys out these PTO liabilities from employees, then loads the cash value of the PTO on prepaid Credit Cards for the employees.

Speaking to me on a call, CEO and cofounder Veetahl Eilat-Raichel, said: “We researched this whole idea of paid time off and found this huge, massive market failure and inefficiency around the way that PTO is constructed. It’s kind of one of those things where, on the face of it, there’s this boring bureaucratic payroll item that turns into a boring balance sheet item. But under it is a $224 billion problem for US businesses… If you think about it, employers are borrowing money from their employees at the worst terms possible and employees aren’t benefitting either. So everyone’s hurting here.”

She said: “Sorbet assumes the liability on ourselves and so then we can allow the company to control their cash flow and decide when they want to pay us back. They gain a lot of financial value because we are able to be very, very attractive on our funding. So it saves costs, it provides them with complete control of their cash flow, and it allows them to give out amazing financial benefits to employees at a time where we can all use some extra cash right now.”

The platform Sorbet has built will, it says, sync with calendars, HR, and payroll systems, identifies habits, and then proactively suggests personalized, pre-approved 3-6 hour “Micro Breaks”, 1-4 day “Micro Vacations” and +1 week Vacations. This, says the startup, increases PTO used by as much as 15%.

Employers can constantly renegotiate the terms of the loan with Sorbet, thus matching future cash flow, insulating themselves against salary raises (wage inflation), and take advantage of other benefits.

The cofounders are Eilat-Raichel, who previously worked at L’Oreal and Lockheed Martin, and a Fintech entrepreneur; Eliaz Shapira, co-founder and CPO; and Rami Kasterstein co-founder and board Member.

Erase All Kittens raises $1M Seed round for Mario-style game which teaches girls to code

By Mike Butcher

Erase All Kittens (EAK) is an EdTech startup that created a ‘Mario-style’ web-based game designed for kids aged 8-12. However, the game has a twist: it places an emphasis on inspiring girls to code (since let’s face it, most coding tools are created by men). After reaching 160,000 players in over 100 countries, it’s now raised a $1M Seed funding led by Twinkl Educational Publishing, with participation from first investor Christian Reyntjens of the A Black Square family office, alongside angel investors, including one of the founders of Shazam.

While the existing EAK game is free, a new game launched in July will be paid for, further boosting the product’s business model.

EAK says its research shows that some 55% of its players are girls, and 95% want to learn more about coding after playing its game. EAK is currently being used in over 3,000 schools, mostly in the UK and US, and its traction increased by 500% during the lockdowns associated with the pandemic.

It’s Erase All Kittens’ contention that coding education tools for children have been largely built by men and so naturally appeal more to boys. With most teaching repetitive coding, in a very rigid, instructional way, it tends to appeal more to boys than girls, says EAK.

The female-founded team has a platform for changing the perception that kids, especially girls, have of coding. After R&D of two years, it came up with a game designed to teach kids and girls as young as 8 skills such as HTML, CSS, and Javascript in a highly gamified, story-driven gameplay. Kids get to chat with characters on their journey, for example, a serial entrepreneur unicorn mermaid called Tarquin Glitterquiff.

“Players edit the code that governs the game environment, building and fixing levels as they play in order to save kittens in a fantasy internet universe,” said cofounder Dee Saigal, co-founder, CEO and creative director. Saigal is joined by co-founder Leonie Van Der Linde; CTO Rex Van Der Spuy; Senior Games Developer Jeremy Keen; and 2D Games Artist Mikhail Malkin.

The existing game teaches HTML skills and how to create URLs, and the new game (released in July this year) will teach HTML, CSS, and Javascript skills – bridging the huge gap between kids learning the concepts and being able to create on the web like developers.

Said Saigal: “We’re designing a coding game that girls genuinely love – one that places a huge emphasis on creativity. Girls can see instant results as they code, there are different ways to progress through the game, and learning is seamlessly blended with storytelling.”

Saigal said: “When I was younger I wanted to be a games designer. I loved coming up with ideas for games but coding had always seemed like an impossible task. We weren’t taught coding at school, and I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me making games, so I didn’t think it was something I could do.”

“Whilst researching our target audience, we found that one of the biggest obstacles for girls still begins with gender stereotypes from an early age. By the time girls reach school, this snowballs into a lack of confidence in STEM skills and lower expectations from teachers, which in turn can lead to lower performance—a gap that only widens as girls get older.”

EAK’s competitors include Code Kingdoms, Swift Playgrounds and CodeCombat. But Saigal says these games tend to appeal far more to boys than to girls.

The new game (see below) will be sold to schools and parents, globally. EAK will also be carrying out a one-for-one scheme, where for every school account purchased, one will be donated to underserved schools via partnerships with tech companies, educational organizations, and NGOs.

Jonathan Seaton, Co-founder and CEO at Twinkl and Director of TwinklHive, said: “We’re really excited to partner with Erase All Kittens, as a digital company Twinkl recognizes the importance of preparing children to succeed in the digital age and we believe through this partnership we can really make a difference.”

“The team is particularly excited about helping further Erase All Kitten’s mission to empower girls and give them the same opportunities to learn to code and build their own digital creations. Ensuring that all children have equal access to opportunities to learn is at the heart of Twinkl’s vision and a key motivation in the development of this partnership for both organizations.”

Erase All Kittens

Erase All Kittens

Erase All Kittens says it is addressing the global skills gap, where the gender gap is increasingly widening. According to PWC, just 24% of the tech workforce is female and women make up just 12% of all engineers, while only 3% of female students in the UK list tech as their first career choice.

Research by Childwise found that 90% of girls give up on coding after first trying it, and if they lose interest in STEM subject by the age of 11, they never recover from that. This is a huge and growing problem for the tech industry and for investors.

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Investors eat up Orbillion Bio’s plans for lab-grown Wagyu beef, elk and bison

By Jonathan Shieber

Orbillion Bio’s plans to make high-end meats in a lab have investors lining up for a seat at the company’s cap table.

Mere weeks after launching from Y Combinator’s famous accelerator program, the Silicon Valley-based potential purveyor of premium lamb loins, elk steaks, bison burgers and more has managed to haul in $5 million in financing.

The company is led by Patricia Bubner, Gabriel Levesque-Tremblay and Samet Yildirim, who between them have more than 30 years working in bioprocessing and the biopharmaceuticals industry.

A little over a month ago, Orbillion held its first public tasting event, where meats mixed with its elk, beef and sheep were on offer straight from the petri dish to the table.

Investors in the $5 million round include: At One Ventures, which has also backed Finless Foods and Wild Earth; Metaplanet Holdings; the European investment firm k16 ventures; FoundersX Ventures, which also invested in SpaceX; Prithi Ventures, which backed Mission Barns and Turtle Tree Labs; and angel investors including Jonghoon Lim, the CEO of Hanmi Pharmaceuticals; Kris Corzine; Ethan Perlstein, the CEO of Perlara, the first biotech PBC; and a well-known university endowment. 

“We were immediately struck by Orbillion’s focus on high-end, flavorful, hard-to-find meats like lamb, elk, wagyu beef, and bison, their strong science, business, and engineering backgrounds, and the fact that they are so focused on flavor that they literally have a Master Butcher on their advisory board,” said Ali Rohde, GP at Outset Capital, an early-stage venture fund run by Rohde along with repeat entrepreneurs Kanjun Qiu and Josh Albrecht. “Lab-grown meat is the future, and Orbillion Bio is already paving the way.” 

The company said it would use the cash to bring its first product, a Wagyu beef offering, to pilot production.

Longevity startup Longevica plans to launch supplements based on long-term research

By Mike Butcher

A biotech company, that has spent 11 years researching supplements to increase human longevity, plans to launch its supplements later this year. Longevica says it has attracted a total of $13 million from investors including, Alexander Chikunov, a longevity investor, who is also president of the company.

Longevica says it created a biotechnology platform for longevity after researching the life-span of laboratory mice. It now aims to produce medicines, dietary supplements, and food products.

The longevity space is a growing sector for tech startups. Google backed the launch of Calico in the space. Late last year Humanity Inc. raised $2.5 million in a round led by Boston fund One Way Ventures for its longevity company that will leverage AI to maximize people’s healthspan.

Longevica’s CEO Aynar Abdrakhmanov, backing up his company’s aim to tap the desire for people to live longer, said: “According to the WHO, by 2050, 2 billion people will be 60+ years old. By 2026, the sales of services and products for this audience will be around $27 trillion… By comparison, it was only $17 trillion in 2019.”

According to CB Insights, life-extension startups raised a record total of $800 million in 2018 alone. And there are some high-profile investors in the space.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel invested in Unity Biotechnology, which is developing drugs to treat diseases that accompany aging, has also raised significant funding.
 And Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin invested $2.4 million worth of Ether into the nonprofit SENS Research foundation, where famed longevity research Aubrey de Grey is chief science officer, to develop rejuvenation biotechnologies.

Longevica is basing its platform on the work of scientist Alexey Ryazanov, who holds 10 US patents in the space, and a long-time researcher into the regulation of protein biosynthesis cells.

Chikunov said: “I gathered scientists known in this field to discuss their approaches to the problem. Then Alexey Ryazanov proposed the innovative idea of large-scale screening of all known pharmacological substances on long-lived mice in order to find those that prolong life.”

Under the leadership of Ryazanov, Longevica says it used 20,000 long-lived female mice and 1,033 drugs representing compounds from 62 pharmacological classes, to find five substances that statistically significantly increased longevity by 16-22%: Inulin, Pentetic Acid, Clofibrate, Proscillaridin A, D-Valine.

From this work, they formed a view about the elimination of certain heavy metals from the body and improve the body’s ability to remove toxins.

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

By Alexandra Ames

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Loft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Window Snyder’s new startup Thistle Technologies raises $2.5M seed to secure IoT devices

By Zack Whittaker

The Internet of Things has a security problem. The past decade has seen wave after wave of new internet-connected devices, from sensors through to webcams and smart home tech, often manufactured in bulk but with little — if any — consideration to security. Worse, many device manufacturers make no effort to fix security flaws, while others simply leave out the software update mechanisms needed to deliver patches altogether.

That sets up an entire swath of insecure and unpatchable devices to fail, and destined to be thrown out when they break down or are invariably hacked.

Security veteran Window Snyder thinks there is a better way. Her new startup, Thistle Technologies, is backed with $2.5 million in seed funding from True Ventures with the goal of helping IoT manufacturers reliably and securely deliver software updates to their devices.

Snyder founded Thistle last year, and named it after the flowering plant with sharp prickles designed to deter animals from eating them. “It’s a defense mechanism,” Snyder told TechCrunch, a name that’s fitting for a defensive technology company. The startup aims to help device manufacturers without the personnel or resources to integrate update mechanisms into their device’s software in order to receive security updates and better defend against security threats.

“We’re building the means so that they don’t have to do it themselves. They want to spend the time building customer-facing features anyway,” said Snyder. Prior to founding Thistle, Snyder worked in senior cybersecurity positions at Apple, Intel, and Microsoft, and also served as chief security officer at Mozilla, Square, and Fastly.

Thistle lands on the security scene at a time when IoT needs it most. Botnet operators are known to scan the internet for devices with weak default passwords and hijack their internet connections to pummel victims with floods of internet traffic, knocking entire websites and networks offline. In 2016, a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service attack launched by the Mirai botnet on internet infrastructure giant Dyn knocked some of the biggest websites — Shopify, SoundCloud, Spotify, Twitter — offline for hours. Mirai had ensnared thousands of IoT devices into its network at the time of the attack.

Other malicious hackers target IoT devices as a way to get a foot into a victim’s network, allowing them to launch attacks or plant malware from the inside.

Since device manufacturers have done little to solve their security problems among themselves, lawmakers are looking at legislating to curb some of the more egregious security mistakes made by default manufacturers, like using default — and often unchangeable — passwords and selling devices with no way to deliver security updates.

California paved the way after passing an IoT security law in 2018, with the U.K. following shortly after in 2019. The U.S. has no federal law governing basic IoT security standards.

Snyder said the push to introduce IoT cybersecurity laws could be “an easy way for folks to get into compliance” without having to hire fleets of security engineers. Having an update mechanism in place also helps to keeps the IoT devices around for longer — potentially for years longer — simply by being able to push fixes and new features.

“To build the infrastructure that’s going to allow you to continue to make those devices resilient and deliver new functionality through software, that’s an incredible opportunity for these device manufacturers. And so I’m building a security infrastructure company to support that security needs,” she said.

With the seed round in the bank, Snyder said the company is focused on hiring device and back-end engineers, product managers, and building new partnerships with device manufacturers.

Phil Black, co-founder of True Ventures — Thistle’s seed round investor — described the company as “an astute and natural next step in security technologies.” He added: “Window has so many of the qualities we look for in founders. She has deep domain expertise, is highly respected within the security community, and she’s driven by a deep passion to evolve her industry.”

Founders Factory Africa partners with Small Foundation to invest in 18 agritech startups

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Johannesburg-based investment company Founders Factory Africa (FFA) today announced a partnership with Small Foundation that will see it select 18 agritech startups for an acceleration and incubation program.

Small Foundation is a Dublin-based philanthropic organization that focuses on the rural and agriculture sector in sub-Saharan Africa. With this partnership, Small Foundation is making an undisclosed investment in FFA to build and scale agritech startups on the continent.

“The partnership stands to make a significant impact across the continent by supporting agritech startups who can innovate and improve the delivery of a range of services to smallholder farmers and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in the agricultural sector,” an excerpt in a statement read.

According to the South African-based venture development and investment company founded by Roo Rogers and Alina Truhina, early-stage founders will need to apply to join the Founders Factory Africa Venture Scale or Venture Build portfolios. These startups will have access to funding between $100,000 to $250,000 and hands-on technical support.

This is a change from when the company launched in 2018. FFA is an extension of the Founders Factory organisation that has invested in more than 130 companies globally. In 2018, FFA launched its first vertical in fintech when it partnered with the continent’s largest bank, Standard Bank, to invest in fintech startups. Some of the startups include Bwala, LipaLater, MVXchange and OkHi.

The following year, it took on a second investor in South African healthcare company Netcare Group and, via the partnership, invested in health-tech startups like RxAll, Redbird and Wellahealth.

Last year when we reported this partnership, startups in FFA’s Venture Scale accelerator program received a £30,000 cash investment and £220,000 in support services. Those in the Venture Build program received £60,000 cash and £100,000 toward support.   

For this third partnership, Truhina says FFA will be investing a total of $300,000 in cash and hands-on support for companies in its Venture Scale program. However, startups in Venture Build will be receiving up to $250,000 in funding.

The Venture Scale program involves providing support for existing startups operating in seed to pre-Series A stages. On the other hand, the Venture Build program is for founders wanting to launch a startup in Africa, who may or may not have a concept or an idea

Currently, there are 23 companies across FFA’s Scale and Build portfolios. These startups, mainly from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, have collectively raised more than $7 million during and after the program. Truhina says FFA plans to increase this number to nearly 90 startups in total by 2024.

“We will build, scale and invest in 88 startups with current FFA investors (Standard Bank, Netcare and Small Foundation) until 2024. We plan to continue to take on new investors and continue to work on the continent indefinitely,” she said.

Founders Factory Africa

While FFA is dedicating a fund for agritech startups, it has invested in other startups with agritech solutions for instance Nigeria’s Foodlocker. The company forecasts foodstuff demand through machine learning and helps buyers procure goods from smallholder farmers. But despite this proposition, FFA classifies the startup as a fintech investment.

“Foodlocker was a company we selected and invested in under our Fintech portfolio, as the startup has a financial component. With Small Foundation, we are setting up a new dedicated agritech sector,” said Truhina. Small Foundation joins Standard Bank and Netcare in the peculiarity of assistance offered to FFA portfolio startups. From sector expertise and footprint across the continent to access to clients, POCs and pilots, these investors are trying to fill in the gap in sectors ripe for exponential growth.

But though fintech has caught on well with both local and international investors, the same cannot be said for health tech and agritech. According to Briter Bridges, fintech accounted for 31% of the total $1.3 billion raised by African startups. Health-tech startups accounted for 9%, while agritech startups represented just 7%.

Small Foundation wants to improve this number in its own little way, and concurrently has a plan to “end extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030.” Conor Brosnan, the CEO and chair of the foundation, holds that tackling the sector’s biggest issues with the FFA will bring the company toward achieving this objective.

“This is a pivotal time to invest in the growing area of agritech in Africa, which has transformative potential for local livelihoods. We are excited to see FFA’s highly skilled teamwork with immensely talented African entrepreneurs to deliver scaled solutions to some of the biggest challenges faced by the sector,” he said.

In three years, Founders Factory Africa has managed to enlist the services and finances of three influential partners. Yet, it has 55 more startups to invest in before 2024, so we should expect an increased investment activity and more partnerships to fund startups in other sectors.

The firm also has fresh capital in the works for its portfolio companies as it advances, though. It’s in the process of raising a $35 million “Africa Seed Fund” which will exist alongside FFA and execute follow-on capital in some portfolio companies.

Hadrian is building the factories of the future for rocket ships and advanced manufacturing

By Jonathan Shieber

If the eight person team behind the new startup Hadrian has their way, they’ll have transformed the manufacturing industry within the next decade.

At least, that’s the goal for the new San Francisco-based startup, founded only last year, which has set its sights on building out a new model for advanced manufacturing to enable the satellite, space ship, and advanced energy technology companies to build the future they envision better and faster.

We view our job as to provide the world’s most efficient space and defense component factory,” said Hadrian founder, Chris Power.

Initially, the company is building factories to make the parts that go on rocket ships, according to Power, but the business has implications for any company that needs bespoke components to make their equipment.

“Let me tell you how bad it is at the moment and what’s going to happen over the next 20 years. Right now everyone in space and defense, [including] SpaceX and Lockheed Martin, outsources their parts and manufacturing to small factories across the country. They’re super expensive, they’re unreliable and they’re completely invisible to the customers,” said Power. “This causes big problems with space and defense manufacturers in the design phase, because the lead time is so long and the iteration time is super long. Imagine running software and being able to iterate on your product once every 20 days? If you can imagine a Gantt chart of how to build a rocket, about 60% of that is buffer time… A lot of the delays in launches and stuff like that happen because parts got delivered three months ago. It’d be like running a McDonalds and realizing that your fries and burger providers could not tell you when the food would arrive.”

It’s hard to overstate the strategic importance of the parts suppliers to the operations of aerospace, defense, and advanced machining companies. As no less an authority on manufacturing than Elon Musk noted in a tweet, “The factory is the product.” It’s also hard to overstate the geopolitical importance of re-establishing the U.S. as a center of manufacturing excellence, according to Hadrian’s investors Lux Capital, Founders Fund, and Construct Capital. Which is one reason why they’re investing $9.5 million into the very early stage business.

“America made massive strategic mistakes in the early 90s which have left our national manufacturing ecosystem completely dilapidated,” said Founders Fund principal Delian Asparouhov. “The only way to get out of this disaster is to re-invent the most basic input into our aerospace and defense supply chains, machining metal parts quickly and with high tolerance. Right now, America’s most innovative company, SpaceX, relies on a network of near-retired machinists to produce space-worthy metal parts, and no one in technology is. focused on solving this.”

 

The factory is the product

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 11, 2021

Power got to understand the problem at his previous company, Ento, which sold workforce management software to blue collar customers. It was there he realized the issue of. the aging workforce and the need for manufacturers to upgrade almost every aspect of their own technology stack. “I realized that the right way to bring technology to the industrial space is not to sell software to these companies, it’s to build an industrial business from scratch with software.”

Initially, Hadrian is focusing all of its efforts on the space industry, where the component manufacturing problem is especially acute, but the manufacturing capabilities the company is building out have broad relevance across any industry that requires highly engineered components.

“The demand for manufacturing from both the large SpaceX and Blue Origin all the way to this growing long tail of companies from Anduril to Relativity to Varda,” said Lux Capital co-founder Josh Wolfe. “Most of these guys are using mom and pop machine shops… [and] those shops are horribly inefficient. They’re not consistent, and they’re not reliable. Between the software automation, the hardware, you can cut down on inefficiency every step of the process… I like to think of value creation as waste reduction… so mundane things like quoting, scheduling, bidding, and planning all the way to the programming of the manufacturing… every one of those things takes hours to tens of hours to days and weeks, so if you can do that in minutes, it’s just a no-brainer. [Hadrian] will be the cutting edge choice for all of the new and explicitly dedicated and focused aerospace and defense companies.”

Power envisions a network of manufacturing facilities that can initially cover roughly 65% of all space and defense components, and will eventually take that number up to 95% of components. Already several of the biggest launch vehicle and satellite manufacturers are in talks with the company to produce hundreds of units for them, Power said. Some of those companies just happen to be in the Construct, Lux, and Founders Fund portfolio.

And the company’s founder sees this as a new way to revitalize American manufacturing jobs as well. “Manufacturing jobs in space and defense can easily be as high paying as a software engineering job at Google,” he said. In an ideal world, Hadrian would like to offer an onramp to high paying manufacturing careers in the 21st century in the same way that automakers provided good union jobs in the twentieth.

“We haven’t built any of this. If you look at the sheer number of people that we need to train and hire on our new technology and new systems, that people problem and that training problem is part of growing our business.”

A render of Axiom’s future commercial space station design.

Sales scheduling platform Chili Piper raises $33M Series B funding led by Tiger Global

By Mike Butcher

Chili Piper, which has a sophisticated SaaS appointment scheduling platform for sales teams, has raised a $33 million B round led by Tiger Global. Existing investors Base10 Partners and Gradient Ventures (Google’s AI-focused VC) also participated. This brings the company’s total financing to $54 million. The company will use the capital raised to accelerate product development. The previous $18M A round was led by Base10 and Google’s Gradient Ventures 9 months ago.

It’s main competitor is Calendly, started 21/2 years previously, which recently achieved a $3Bn valuation.

Launched in 2016, Chili Piper’s software for B2B revenue teams is designed to convert leads into attended meetings. Sales teams can also use it to book demos, increase inbound conversion rates, eliminate manual lead routing, and streamline critical processes around meetings. It’s used by Intuit, Twilio, Forrester, Spotify, and Gong.

Chili Piper has a number of different tools for businesses to schedule and calendar accountments, but its key USP is in its use by ‘inbound SDR Sales Development Representatives (SDR)’, who are responsible for qualifying inbound sales leads. It’s particularly useful in scheduling calls when customers hit websites ask for a salesperson to call them back.

Nicolas Vandenberghe, CEO, and co-founder of Chili Piper said: “When we started we sold the house and decided to grow the company ourselves. So all the way until 2019 we bootstrapped. Tiger gave us a valuation that we expected to get at the end of this year, which will help us accelerate things much faster, so we couldn’t refuse it.”

Alina Vandenberghe, CPO, and Co-founder said: “We’re proud to have so many customers scheduling meetings and optimizing their calendars with Chili Piper’s Instant Booker.”

Since the pandemic hit, the husband-and-wife founded company has gone fully remote, with 93 employees in 81 cities and 21 countries.

John Curtius, Partner at Tiger Global said: “When we met Nicolas and Alina, we were fired up by their product vision and focus on customer happiness.”

TJ Nahigian, Managing Partner at Base10 Partners, added: “We originally invested in Chili Piper because we knew customers needed ways to add fire to how they connected with inbound leads. We’ve been absolutely blown away with the progress over the past year, 2020 has been a step-change for this company as business went remote.”

Pearpop raises from The Chainsmokers, Alexis Ohanian, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart, Mark Cuban, Marshmello, and Snoop Dogg

By Jonathan Shieber

Pearpop, the marketplace for social collaborations between the teeming hordes of musicians, craftspeople, chefs, clowns, diarists, dancers, artists, actors, acrobats, aspiring celebrities and actual celebrities, has raised $16 million in funding that includes what seems like half of Hollywood, along with Alexis Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six venture firm and Bessemer Venture Partners.

The funding was actually split between a $6 million seed funding round co-led by Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s Sound Ventures and Slow Ventures, with participation from Atelier Ventures and Chapter One Ventures and a $10 million additional investment led by Ohanian’s Seven Seven Six with participation from Bessemer.

TechCrunch first covered pearpop last year and there’s no denying that the startup is on to something. It basically takes Cameo’s celebrity marketplace for private shout-outs and makes it public. Allowing social media personalities to boost their followers by paying more popular personalities to shout out, duet, or comment on their posts.

“I’ve invested in pearpop because it’s been on my mind for a while that the creator economy has resulted in a lot of not equitable outcomes for creators. Where i talked about the missing middle class of the creator economy,” said Li Jin, the founder of Atelier Ventures and author of a critical piece on creator economics, “The creator economy needs a middle class“. 

“When I saw pearpop I felt like there was a really big potential for pearpop to be the one of the creators of the creative middle class. They’ve introduced this mechanism by which larger creators can help smaller creators and everyone has something of value to offer something to everyone else in the ecosystem.”

Jin discovered pearpop through the TechCrunch piece, she said. “You wrote that article and then i reached out to the team,” said Jin.

The idea was so appealing, it brought in a slew of musicians, athletes, actors and entertainers, including: Abel Makkonen (The Weeknd), Amy Schumer, The Chainsmokers, Diddy, Gary Vaynerchuk, Griffin Johnson, Josh Richards, Kevin Durant (Thirty 5 Ventures), Kevin Hart (HartBeat Ventures), Mark Cuban, Marshmello, Moe Shalizi, Michael Gruen (Animal Capital), MrBeast (Night Media Ventures), Rich Miner (Android co-founder) and Snoop Dogg.

“Pearpop has the potential to benefit all social media platforms by delivering new users and engagement, while simultaneously leveling the playing field of opportunity for creators,” said Alexis Ohanian, Founder, Seven Seven Six, in a statement. “The company has created a revolutionary new marketplace model that is set to completely reimagine how we think of social media monetization. As both a social media founder and an investor, I’m excited for what’s to come with pearpop.”

Already Heidi Klum, Loren Gray, Snoop Dogg, and Tony Hawk have gotten paid to appear in social media posts from aspiring auteurs on the social media platform TikTok.

Using the platform is relatively simple. A social media user (for now, that means just TikTok) sends a post that exists on their social feed and requests that another social media user interacts with it in some way — either commenting, posting a video in response, or adding a sound. If the request seems okay, or “on brand”, then the person who accepts the request performs the prescribed action.

Pearpop takes a 25% cut of all transactions with the social media user who’s performing the task getting the other 75%.

The company wouldn’t comment on revenue numbers, except to say that it’s on track to bring in seven figures this year.

Users on the platform set their prices and determine which kinds of services they’re willing to provide to boost the social media posts of their contractors.

Prices range anywhere from $5 to $10,000 depending on the size of a user’s following and the type of request that’s being made. Right now, the most requested personality on the marketplace is the TikTok star, Anna Banana.

These kinds of transactions do have impacts. The company said that personalities on the platform were able to increase their follower count with the service. For instance, Leah Svoboda went from 20K to 141K followers, after a pearpop duet with Anna Shumate.

If this all makes you feel like you’ve tripped and fallen through a Black Mirror into a dystopian hellscape where everything and every interaction is a commodity to be mined for money, well… that’s life.

“What I appreciate most about pearpop is the control it gives me as a creator,” said Anna Shumate, TikTok influencer @annabananaxdddd. “The platform allows me to post what I want and when I want. My followers still love my content because it’s authentic and true to me, which is what sets pearpop apart from all of the other opportunities on social media.”

Talent agencies, too, see the draw. Early adopters include Talent X, Get Engaged, and Next Step Talent and The Fuel Injector, which has added its entire roster of talent to pearpop, which includes Kody Antle, Brooke Monk and Harry Raftus, the company said.

“The initial concept came out of an obvious gap within the space: no marketplace existed for creators of all sizes to monetize through simple, authentic collaborations that are mutually beneficial,” said Cole Mason, co-founder & CEO, pearpop.  “It soon became clear that this was a product that people had been waiting for, as thousands of people rely on our platform today to gain full control of their social capital for the first time starting with TikTok.”

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.

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

By Rita Liao

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

ConsenSys raises $65M from JP Morgan, Mastercard, UBS to build infrastructure for DeFi

By Mike Butcher

ConsenSys, a key player in crypto and a major proponent of the Ethereum blockchain, has raised a $65 million funding round from J.P. Morgan, Mastercard, and UBS AG, as well as major blockchain companies Protocol Labs, the Maker Foundation, Fenbushi, The LAO and Alameda Research. Additional investors include CMT Digital and the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund. As well as fiat, several funds invested with Ethereum-based stablecoins, DAI and USDC, as consideration.

Sources told TechCrunch that this is an unpriced round because of the valuation risk, and the funding instrument is “full”, so the round is being closed now.

The fundraise looks like a highly strategic one, based around the idea that traditional institutions will need visibility into the increasingly influential world of ‘decentralized finance’ (DeFi) and the Web3 applications being developed on the Ethereum blockchain.

In a statement on the fundraise, ConsenSys said it has been through a “period of strategic evolution and growth”, but most outside observers would agree that this is that’s something of an understatement.

After a period of quite a lot of ‘creative disruption’ to put it mildly (at one point a couple of years ago, ConsenSys seemed to have everything from a VC fund, to an accelerator, to multiple startups under its wing), the company has restructured to form two main arms: ConsenSys, the core software business; and ConsenSys Mesh, the investment arm, incubator, and portfolio. It also acquired the Quorum product from J.P. Morgan which has given it a deeper bench into the enterprise blockchain ecosystem. This means it now has a very key product suite for the Etherum platform, including products such as Codefi, Diligence, Infura, MetaMask, Truffle, and Quorum.

This suite allows it to serve both public and private permissioned blockchain networks. It can also support Layer 2 Ethereum networks, as well as facilitate access to adjacent protocols like IPFS, Filecoin, and others. ConsenSys is also a major contributor to the Ethereum 2.0 project, for obvious reasons.

Commenting on the fundraise, Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and co-founder, Ethreum said in a statement: “When we set out to raise a round, it was important to us to patiently construct a diverse cap table, consistent with our belief that similar to how the web developed, the whole economy would join the revolutionaries on a next-generation protocol. ConsenSys’ software stack represents access to a new automated objective trust foundation enabled by decentralized protocols like Ethereum. We are proud to partner with preeminent financial firms alongside leading crypto companies to further converge the centralized and decentralized financial domains at this particularly exciting time of growth for ConsenSys and the entire industry.”

With financial institutions able to see, ‘in public’ DeFi happening on Ethereuem, because of the public chain, they can see how much of the financial system is gradually starting to merge with the blockchain world. So it’s becoming clearer what attracts these major institutions.

Mike Dargan, Head of Group Technology at UBS said: “Our investment in ConsenSys adds proven expertise in distributed ledger technology to our UBS Next portfolio.”

For MasterCard this appears to be not just a pure investment – Consensys has been working with it on a private permissioned network.

Raj Dhamodharan, executive vice president of digital asset and blockchain products and partnerships at Mastercard said: “Enterprise Ethereum is a key infrastructure on which we and our partners are building payment and non-payment applications to power the future of commerce… Our investment and partnership with ConsenSys helps us bring secure and performant Enterprise Ethereum capabilities to our customers.”

Colleen Sullivan, Co-Founder and CEO of CMT Digital said: “ConsenSys is the pioneer in bridging the gaps across traditional finance, centralized crypto, and DeFi, and more broadly, between Web 2.0 and Web 3.0. We are proud to participate in this funding round as the ConsenSys team continues to pave the way for global users  — retail and institutional — to easily access the crypto ecosystem.”

TechCrunch understands that the fundraise was started around the time of the Quorum acquisition, last June. The $65 million round is in majority fiat currency as opposed to cryptocurrency and is an adjunct to the round done with JP Morgan last summer.

The presence of significant crypto players such as Maker Protocol Labs shows the significance of the fund-raise, beyond the simple transaction. The announcement also comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO, which makes for interesting timing.

ConsenSys’ products have become highly significant in the world where developers, enterprises, and consumers meet blockchain and crypto. In its statement, the company claims MetaMask now has over three million monthly active users across mobile and desktop, a 3x increase in the last five or six months, it says. This is roughly the same amount of monthly active customers as Coinbase.

The ConsenSys announcement comes just ahead of the Coinbase IPO. While Coinbase is acting as an exchange to turn fiat into crypto and vice versa, it has also been getting into DeFi of late. Where there are also resemblances with ConsenSys, is that Coinbase, with 3 million users, is used as a wallet, and MetMask, which also has 3 million users, can also be used as a wallet. The comparison ends there, but it’s certainly interesting, given Coinbase’s $100 billion valuation.

As Jeremy Millar, Chief Development Officer, told me: “Coinbase has pioneered an exchange, in one of the world’s was regulated financial markets, the US. And it has helped drive significant interest in the space. We enjoy a very positive relationship with Coinbase, trying to further enable the ecosystem and adoption of the technology.”

The background to this raise is that a lot of early-stage blockchain and crypto companies have been raising a lot of money recently, but much of this has been through crypto investment firms. Only a handful of Silicon Valley VCs are backing blockchain, such as Andreessen Horowitz.

What’s interesting about this announcement is that these incumbent financial giants are not only taking an interest, but working alongside ConsenSys to both invest and build products on Ethereum.

It’s ConsenSys’ view that every payment service provider, banks will need this financial infrastructure in the future, especially for DeFI.

Given there is roughly $43 billion collateralized in DeFi, it’s increasingly the case that major investors are involved, and there are increasingly higher returns than traditional yield and bond or bond yields.

The moves by Central Banks into digital currencies is also forcing companies and governments to realize digital currency, and the ‘blockchain rails’ on which it runs, is here to stay. This is what is suggested by the Greater Bay Area Homeland Development Fund’s (a Shenzhen / Hong Kong joint partnership) decision to get involved.

Another aspect of this story is that ConsenSys is sitting on some extremely powerful products. Consensys has six products that serve three different types of people.

Service developers who are building on Ethereum are using Truffle to develop smart contracts. Users joining the NFT hype are using MetaMask underneath it all.

The MetaMask wallet allows users to swap one token for another. This has proved quite lucrative for ConsenSys, which says it has resulted in $1.8 billion in volume in decentralized exchange use. ConsenSys takes a 0.875 percent cut on every swap that it serves.

And institutions are using Consensys’ products. The company says more than 150,000 developers use Infura’s APIs, and 4.5 million developers create and deploy smart contracts using Truffle, while its Protocols group — developer of Hyperledger Besu and ConsenSys Quorum — are building Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) for six central banks, says Consensys.

Consensys is also making hay with the NFT boom. Developers are using Consensys products for the nodes and infrastructure on Ethereum which stores the NFT files.

Consensys is also riding two waves. One is the developer eave and the other is the financial system wave.

As a spokesperson said: “Where the interest in money and invention started happening was on public networks like Ethereum. So we really believe that these are converging and they will continue to, and every one of our products offers public main net compatibility because we think this is the future.”

Millar added: “If we want to help the world adopt the technology we need to meet it at its adoption point, which for many large enterprises means inside the firewall first. But similarly, we think, just like the public Internet, the real value – the disruptive value – changes the ability to do this on a broader permissionless basis, especially when you have sufficient privacy and authentication available.”

Let’s talk about gaslighting and fundraising

By Natasha Mascarenhas

“Most of the startups I give advice to about how to raise venture capital shouldn’t be raising venture capital,” an investor recently told me. While the idea that every startup isn’t venture-backable might run counter to the narrative to the barrage of funding news each week, I think it’s important to double click on the topic. Plus, it keeps coming up, off the record, on phone calls with investors!

As venture grows as an asset class, the access to capital has broadened from a dollar perspective, but I do think the difficulties that remain is an important dynamic to call out (and something no one talks about during an upmarket). Beyond the fact that only a small subset of startups truly can pull off scaling to the point of venture-level returns, it is still hard for even qualified founders to raise venture capital. Venture capital is still a heavily white, male-led industry, and as a result contains bias that disproportionately limits access for underrepresented founders.

Eniac founding partner Hadley Harris applied this dynamic to the current market boom in a recent tweet: A lot of people are misunderstanding this VC funding market. More money is flowing into the market but the increase is not evenly distributed. The market believes winners can be much bigger but not necessary that there will be more winners. It’s still very hard for most to raise a VC.

To say otherwise is to gaslight the early-stage or first-time founders that have spent months and months trying to raise their first institutional dollars and failed. So ask yourself: Seed rounds have indeed grown bigger, but for who? What comes at the cost of the $30 million seed round? Are the founders that can raise overnight from diverse backgrounds? Are investors backing first-time founders as much as they are backing second- or third-time entrepreneurs?

The answers might leave you debating about the boundaries, and limitations, of the upcoming hot-deal summer.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the disconnect between due diligence and fundraising right now. Now we’ve moved onto the disconnect, and bifurcation, within first-check fundraising itself. There is so much more we can get into about the fallacy of “democratization” in venture capital, from who gets to start a rolling fund to the lack of assurance within equity crowdfunding campaigns.

We’ll get through it all together, and in the meantime make sure to follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ for more hot takes throughout the week.

In the rest of this newsletter, we will talk about fintech politics, the Affirm model with a twist, and sneakers-as-a-service.

Ex-Coinbase talks politics

The inimitable Mary Ann Azevedo has been dominating the fintech beat for us, covering everything from the latest Uruguayan unicorn to Acorn’s scoop of a debt management startup. But the story I want to focus on this week is her interview with ex-Coinbase counsel & former Treasury official, Brian Brooks.

Here’s what to know: Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong notoriously released a memo last year denouncing political activism at work, calling it a distraction. In this exclusive interview, Brooks spoke about how blockchain is the answer to financial inclusion, and argued why politics needs to be taken out of tech.

We don’t want bank CEOs making those decisions for us as a society, in terms of who they choose to lend money to, or not. We need to take the politics out of tech. All of us do a lot of different things, and we have no idea on a given day, whether what we’re doing is popular with our neighbors or popular with our bank president or not. I don’t want the fact that I sometimes feel Republican to be a reason why my local bank president can deny me a mortgage.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

The Affirm for X model

While Affirm may have popularized the “buy now, pay later” model, the consumer-friendly business strategy still has room to be niched down into specific subsectors. I ran into one such startup when covering Plaid’s inaugural cohort of startups in its accelerator program.

Here’s what to know: Walnut is a new seed-stage startup that is a point-of-sale loan company with a healthcare twist. Unlike Affirm, it doesn’t make money off of fees charged to consumers.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Everything you could ever want to know about StockX

In our latest EC-1, reporter Rae Witte has covered a startup that leads one of the most complex and culturally relevant marketplaces in the world: sneakers.

Here’s what to know: StockX, in her words, has built a stock market of hype, and her series goes into its origin story, authentication processes and a market map.

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Around TechCrunch

Found, a new podcast joining the TechCrunch network, has officially launched! The Equity team got a behind-the-scenes look at what triggered the new podcast, the first guests and goals of the show. Make sure to tune into the first episode.

Also, if you run into any paywalls while browsing today’s newsletter, make sure to use discount code STARTUPSWEEKLY to get 25% off an annual or two-year Extra Crunch subscription.

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

Okta launches a new free developer plan

New Jersey announces $10M seed fund aimed at Black and Latinx founders

Education nonprofit Edraak ignored a student data leak for two months

6 VCs talk the future of Austin’s exploding startup ecosystem

Dear Sophie: Help! My H-1B wasn’t chosen!

Seen on Extra Crunch

5 machine learning essentials nontechnical leaders need to understand

How we dodged risks and raised millions for our open-source machine language startup

Giving EV batteries a second life for sustainability and profit

And that’s a wrap! Thanks for making it this far, and now I dare you to go make the most out of the rest of your day. And by make the most, I mean listen to Taylor’s Version.

Warmly,

N

How one founder identified a huge healthcare gap and acquired the skills necessary to address it

By Darrell Etherington

Our new podcast Found is now available, and the first episode features guest Iman Abuzeid, co-founder and CEO of Incredible Health. Abuzeid’s story of founding and building Incredible Health, a career platform for healthcare professionals focusing specifically on nurses, is all about a focused entrepreneur building a unique skill set, and acquiring the experience necessary to create a world-leading solution.

Abuzeid went to medical school and acquired her MD, but decided before residency to instead go get an MBA from Wharton, in order to pursue her dream of entrepreneurship, inspired by two generations of entrepreneurs in the family that preceded her. After eventually making her way to Silicon Valley and working in a couple of other startups in the healthcare space, Abuzeid took important lessons away from those experiences about what not to do when running your own company, and embarked on building her own with co-founder Rome Portlock, now the company’s CTO.

Incredible Health is tackling a huge challenge — the shortfall of availability of skilled nurses, and the lack of mature, sophisticated career resources to help those nurses in their professional life. COVID-19 threw those issues into stark relief, and Incredible Health adjusted its game plan to adapt to its users’ needs. Abuzeid tells us all about how she made those calls, and also how she convinced venture investors to come along for the ride.

We hope you enjoy this episode, and don’t forget to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice. We’d love to hear your feed back, too — either on Twitter or via email, and tune in weekly for more episodes.

Found is hosted by Darrell Etherington and Jordan Crook, and is produced, mixed and edited by Yashad Kulkarni. TechCrunch’s audio products are managed by Henry Pickavet, and Bryce Durbin created the show’s artwork. Found published weekly on Friday afternoons, and you can find past episodes on TechCrunch here.

European tech event mainstays Shift and TOA find new homes, new models, post-COVID

By Mike Butcher

Given the pandemic, huge changes are being wrought in tech events, something which used to be the lifeblood of the industry. Many a startup has pitched to win funding, and many a hackathon has formed teams that went on to greater things. It’s a sad fact that this era is over, at least until the pandemic has fully passed, but this could take some time. Two significant European events have now had to change in order to carry their brands into new realms.

European breakout success story Infobip (which has raised more than $200 million) was born out of Croatia. And so was the seminal developer conference Shift. With Infobip needing that engineering community, and Shift needing a more stable home in uncertain times, it seems only natural that Infobip would put developers front and center of their company strategy with the acquisition of Shift, and appointing its founder and CEO Ivan Burazin to the board as chief developer experience officer. Shift will now form the basis of Infobip’s all-new Developer Experience department.

As Burazin said: “The vision was always to become one of the largest developer conferences in the world, and also to strengthen Croatia’s connection to the world of software developers. So now with the backing of a unicorn and the freedom to keep working on independently, the vision seems to have finally become possible.”

He says Shift won’t disappear, but will now expand globally, first to the U.S. and then to Latin America and southeast Asia, initially in remote events.

Infobip CEO Silvio Kutić said: “Infobip is on a growth trajectory to expand rapidly into the B2C vertical, or more specifically Business-to-Developer (B2D) space. Having Ivan on board with his experience as the founder of Codeanywhere, a B2D SaaS company, and creator of Shift, the largest developer conference in the region, will be an asset to us going forward.”

Meanwhile, a key startup and founder/investor-oriented conference “Tech Open Air Berlin” is also changing.

Tech Open Air (TOA), was known for its technology and startup festival, which attracted upwards of 20,000 people in Berlin every summer, but it has now pivoted into a new brand: TOA Klub. This will now be a “cohort-based learning and doing platform.” The four-six weeks of online programs will be aimed at helping professionals progress in the tech industry.

TOA Klub will offer Founders Klub (for founders learning to startup); Investors Klub (for newbie investors); Crypto Klub (a “crash course in the crypto field”); and Co-Creators Klub (for founders looking to pivot and grow).

The first confirmed mentors and speakers include Rolf Schrömgens (founder, Trivago), Dominik Richter (founder, HelloFresh) and Jeannette zu Fürstenberg (founding partner, La Famiglia VC).

Nikolas Woischnik, founder of TOA said: “The world will come out of this pandemic having digitally aged by decades, not years. The complexity of our business environment has greatly accelerated. At TOA this gives our long-time mission of “making people, organizations and the planet futureproof” ever more purpose. With the launch of Klub, it is time for us to leverage technology to deliver on our mission in a more impactful and accessible way.”

I for one am glad these greats brands have found new homes, because I know the brands and the founders both carry huge respect in the European startup scene.

As working out goes virtual, Moxie raises $6.3M Seed+ round led by Resolute Ventures

By Mike Butcher

With the pandemic sending the planet indoors to workout, the at-home fitness market has boomed. It was only in October last year that three-year-old Future closed $24 million in Series B and Playbook (streaming for personal trainers) raised $9.3 million in a Series A. Into this market launched Moxie, a platform that allowed fitness instructors to broadcast live and recorded classes, access licensed music playlists and deploy a CRM and payment tools. Classes range from $5-$25 and various subscriptions and packages are offered.

Moxie has now raised a $6.3M ‘Seed+’ funding round led by Resolute Ventures with participation from Bessemer Ventures, Greycroft Ventures, Gokul Rajaram, and additional investors. With the $2.1M Seed round from last October, that means Moxie has now raised a total of $8.4M.

With the funding, Moxie now plans to better optimize the user experience with a curated selection of top Moxie classes; new tools that help connect users to instructors; and the ability to preview classes before attending.

The company claims to have experienced “exponential growth” because of its convenience in the pandemic era, with 8,000 classes and 1 million class-minutes completed in March. Moxie’s independent instructors set their own schedules and prices, and get to keep 85% of what they earn on the platform.

The company will also now launch ‘Moxie Benefits’ in partnership with Stride Health, provide instructors with access to health insurance, dental and vision plans, life insurance, and other benefits.

Also planned is ‘Moxie Teams’, enabling groups of instructors to join together to form small businesses on the platform, not unlike the way some Uber drivers form teams.

Jason Goldberg, CEO and founder said in a statement: “Moxie was born during the pandemic alongside thousands of independent fitness instructors who were forced out of gyms and studios and suddenly had to become entrepreneurs and navigate the new frontier of virtual fitness. Now we are seeing widespread adoption of online fitness into people’s lives, and Moxie’s growth proves that these shifts in consumer behavior have staying power. We know that 89% of Moxie users plan to continue virtual workouts post COVID — they love the convenience.”

Resolute Ventures Partner & Co-Founder Raanan Bar-Cohen said: “Our investment theory has always been to identify entrepreneurial founders solving for today’s problems. With Moxie, we saw an experienced operator in Jason, with a product that solved for the issues that instructors and consumers had experienced in the shift to online fitness, as well as a clear roadmap for continued success.”

So why has Moxie managed to cleave to the new virtual workout culture? Goldburg tells me it’s down to a range of factors.

For starters, it’s a two-sided fitness marketplace that has live interactive group fitness classes, unlike VOD apps, and, crucially, unlike Peloton. Additionally, any instructor can teach on Moxie, rather than wait to be picked as a ‘star’ by Peloton. Since 90% of classes are live group fitness classes, they are effectively replacing yoga studios and HIIT classes, rather than personal training. He says many top instructors are now earning $6-figures on the platform.

Certainly, Moxie has managed to capitalize on the fact that while gyms are closed, it’s easy to do virtual classes. Will they still stick around when the pandemic is over? Presumably many will find it more convenient than schlepping to the gym and less intimidating than joining classes in person. Additionally, users can switch classes as easily as switching TV channels.

As Goldberg told me via email: “Covid forced everyone to try virtual fitness for the first time. Guess what? People found it more convenient and more connected than going to offline gyms. And guess what? Peloton is not for everyone.”

YC-backed Abacum nets $7M to empower finance teams with real-time data and collaboration tools

By Natasha Lomas

SaaS to support mid-sized companies’ financial planning with real-time data and native collaboration isn’t the sexiest startup pitch under the sun but it’s one that’s swiftly netted Abacum a bunch of notable backers — including Creandum, which is leading a $7M seed round that’s being announced today.

The rosters of existing investors also participating in the round are Y Combinator (Abacum was part of its latest batch), PROFounders, and K-Fund, along with angel investors such as Justin Kan (Atrium and Twitch co-founder and CEO); Maximilian Tayenthal (N26 co-founder and co-CEO & CFO); Thomas Lehrman (GLG co-founder and ex-CEO), Avi Meir (TravelPerk co-founder and CEO); plus Jenny Bloom (Zapier CFO and Mailchimp ex-CFO) and Mike Asher (CFO at Neo4j).

Abacum was founded last year in the middle of the COVID-19 global lockdown, after what it says was around a year of “deep research” to feed its product development. They launched their SaaS in June 2020. And while they’re not disclosing customer numbers at this early stage their first clients include a range of scale-up companies in the US and in Europe, including the likes of Typeform, Cabify, Ebury, Garten, Jeff and Talkable.

The startup’s Spanish co-founders — Julio Martinez, a fintech entrepreneur with an investment banking background, and Jorge Lluch, a European Space Agency engineer turned CFO/COO — spotted an opportunity to build dedicated software for mid-market finance teams to provide real-time access to data via native collaborative that plugs into key software platforms used by other business units, having felt the pain of a lack of access to real-time data and barriers to collaboration in their own professional experience with the finance function.

The idea with Abacum is to replace the need for finance teams to manually update their models. The SaaS automatically does the updates, fed with real-time data through direct integrations with software used by teams dealing with functions like HR, CRM, ERP (and so on) — empowering the finance function to collaborate more easily across the business and bolster its strategic decision-making capabilities.

The startup’s sales pitch to the target mid-sized companies is multi-layered. Abacum says its SaaS both saves finance teams time and enables faster-decision making.

“Prior to using Abacum, finance analysts in our clients were easily spending 50% to 70% of their time in manual tasks like downloading files from different systems, copy&pasting them in massive spreadsheets (that crash frequently), formatting the data by manually adding and removing rows, columns and formats, connecting the data in a model prone to manual error (e.g. vlookups & sumifs),” Martinez tells TechCrunch. “With Abacum, this entire manual part is automatically done and the finance professionals can spend their time analyzing and adding real value to the business.”

“We enable faster decisions that were not possible prior to Abacum. For instance, some of our clients were updating their cohort analysis on a quarterly basis only because the associated manual tasks were too painful. With us, they’re able to update the analysis weekly and take better decisions as a result.”

The SaaS also supports decisions in another way — by applying machine learning to business data to generate estimates on future performance, providing an AI-based reference point based on historical data that finance teams can use to inform their assumptions.

And it aids cross-business collaboration — allowing users to share and gather information “easily through workflows and permissions”. “We see that this results in faster and richer decisions as more stakeholders are brought into the process,” he adds.

Martinez says Abacum chose to focus on mid-market finance teams because they face “more challenges and inefficiencies” vs the smaller (and larger) ends of the market. “In that segment, the finance function is underinvested — they face the acute complexities of scaling companies that become very pressing but at the same time they are still considered a support function, a back-office,” he argues.

“Abacum makes finance a strategic function — we deliver native collaboration to finance teams so that they become the trusted business partner they want to be. We also see that the pandemic has accelerated the need for finance teams to collaborate effectively and work remotely,” he adds.

He also describes the mid market segment as “fairly unpenetrated” — claiming many companies do not yet having a solution in place.

While competitors he points to when asked about other players in the space are long in the tooth in digital terms: Adaptive Insights (2003); Host Analytics (2001); and Anaplan (2008).

Commenting on the seed round in a statement, Peter Specht, principal at Creandum, added: “The financial planning processes in many companies are ripe for disruption and demand more automation. Abacum’s slick solution empowers finance teams to be more collaborative, efficient and better informed with access to real-time data. We were impressed by their user-friendly product, the initial hiring of top talent, and crucially the strong founders and their extensive operational experience — including as CFOs and entrepreneurs who have experienced the problem first-hand. We are delighted to be part of Abacum’s journey to empower global SMEs to bring their financial operations to new levels.”

Abacum’s seed financing will be ploughed into product development and growth, per Martinez, who says it’s focused on wooing finance teams in the US and Europe for now.

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