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Knock is the latest proptech said to be eyeing the public markets

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Another proptech is considering raising capital through the public arena.

Knock confirmed Monday that it is considering going public, although CEO Sean Black did not specify whether the company would do so via a traditional IPO, SPAC merger or direct listing.

“We are considering all of our options,” Black told TechCrunch. “We pioneered the real estate transaction revolution over five years ago and our priority is to build a war chest to dramatically widen the already cavernous gap between us and any unoriginal knock-offs.”

Bloomberg reported earlier today that the company had hired Goldman Sachs to advise on such a bid, which Knock also confirmed.

According to Bloomberg, Knock is potentially seeking to raise $400 million to $500 million through an IPO, according to “people familiar with the matter,” at a valuation of about $2 billion. The company declined to comment on valuation.

Black and Knock COO Jamie Glenn are no strangers to the proptech game, having both been on the founding team of Trulia, which went public in 2012 and was acquired by Zillow for $3.5 billion in 2014. The pair started Knock in 2015, and have since raised over $430 million in venture funding and another $170 million or so in debt.

Knock started out as a real estate brokerage business until last July, when the company announced a major shift in strategy and said it was becoming a lender. At the time, Knock unveiled its Home Swap program, under which Knock serves as the lender to help a homeowner buy a new home before selling their old house. It previously worked with lending partners but has now become a licensed lender itself.

In other words, the company now offers integrated financing — the mortgage and an interest-free bridge loan — with the goal of helping consumers make strong non-contingent offers on a new home before repairing and listing their old home for sale on the open market.

With that move, Knock eliminated its Home Trade-In program, where it helped consumers buy before selling by using its own money to purchase the new home on behalf of the consumer before prepping and listing the consumer’s old house on the open market. Under that trade-in model, the homeowner used the proceeds from selling their old home to buy the new home from Knock and pay the company back for any repairs it did to prep the house for sale.

At that time, Black told me that Knock had decided to move away from its trade-in program in part because it was capital-intensive and required the closing of a house to take place twice.

“It added friction to the experience,” he said. “And now, especially during COVID, it can be inconvenient to try and sell a house at the same time as buying one. This is about making something possible that isn’t possible with any other traditional lender. We’re able to lend some money before an owner’s [old] house is even listed on the market.” 

To sum up what Knock does today, Black said the company aims to offer a full service technology platform that includes everything “from pre-funding the homebuyers to make non-contingent offers and win bidding wars, to getting their old home ready for market with our contractor network to selling their old home quickly at the highest price and empowers them to have their own agent working with them in the app through the entire process.”

Demand for the Home Swap, he added, has “exceeded all expectations.”

Knock is headquartered in New York and San Francisco. The company launched the Home Swap in three markets in July 2020, and today it is in 27 markets in nine states, including Texas, California and North Carolina.

“Our original plan was to be in 21 markets by the end of 2021,” Black said. “At our current growth rate, we expect to end the year at 45 markets and be in 100 by 2023.”

Knock began 2021 with 100 employees and now has 150. Its plan is to have at least 400 employees by year’s end.

Other proptech startups that have recently announced plans to go public include Compass and Doma (formerly States Title).

TikTok parent ByteDance joins patent troll protection group LOT Network

By Frederic Lardinois

LOT Network, the nonprofit that helps businesses of all sizes and across industries defend themselves against patent trolls by creating a shared pool of patents to immunize themselves against them, today announced that TikTik parent ByteDance is joining its group.

ByteDance has acquired its fair share of patents in recent years and is itself embroiled in a patent fight with its rival Triller. That’s not what joining the LOT Network is about, though. ByteDance is joining a group of companies here that includes the likes of IBM, the Coca-Cola Company, Cisco, Lyft, Microsoft, Oracle, Target, Tencent, Tesla, VW, Ford, Waymo, Xiaomi and Zelle. In total, the group now has more than 1,300 members.

As LOT CEO Ken Seddon told me, the six-year-old group had a record year in 2020, with 574 companies joining and bringing its set of immunized patents to over 3 million, including 14% of all patents issued in the U.S.

Among the core features of LOT, which only charges members who make more than $25 million in annual revenue, is that its members aren’t losing control over the patents they add to the pool. They can still buy and trade them as before, but if they decide to sell to what the industry calls a “patent assertion entity,” (PAE) that is, a patent troll, they automatically provide a free license to that patent to every other member of the group. This essentially turns LOT into what Seddon calls a “flu shot” against patent trolls (and one that’s free for startups).

“The conclusion that people are waking up to is, is that we’re basically like a herd, we’re herd immunization, effectively,” Seddon said. “And every time a company joins, people realize that the community of non-members shrinks by one. It’s like those that don’t have the vaccination shrinks — and they are, ‘wait a minute, that makes me a higher risk of getting sued. I’m a bigger target.’ And they’re like, ‘wait a minute, I don’t want to be the target.’ ”

ByteDance, he argues, is a good example for a company that can profit from membership in LOT. While you may think of patents as purely a sign of a company’s innovativeness, for corporate lawyers, they are also highly effective defense tools (that can be used aggressively as well, if needed). But it can take a small company years to build up a patent portfolio. But a fast-growing, successful company also becomes an obvious target for patent trolls.

“When you are a successful company, you naturally become a target,” Seddon said. “People become jealous and they become threatened by you. And they covet your money and your revenue and your success. One of the ways that companies can defend themselves and protect their innovation is through patents. Some companies grow so fast, they become so successful, that their revenue grows faster than they can grow their patent portfolio organically.” He cited Instacart, which acquired 250 patents from IBM earlier this month, and Airbnb, which was sued by IBM over patent infringement in early 2020 (the companies settled in December), as examples.

ByteDance, thanks to the success of TikTok, now finds itself in a situation where it, too, is likely to become a target of patent trolls. The company has started acquiring patents itself to grow its portfolio faster and now it is joining LOT to strengthen its protection there.

“[ByteDance] is being a visionary and trying to get ahead of the wave,” Seddon noted. “They are a successful global company that needs to develop a global IP strategy. Historically, PAEs were just a U.S. problem, but now ByteDance has to worry about PAEs being an issue in China and Europe as well.  By joining LOT, they protect themselves and their investments from over 3 million patents should they ever fall into the hands of a PAE.”

Lynn Wu, director and chief IP Counsel, Global IP and Digital Licensing Strategy at ByteDance, agrees. “Innovation is core to the culture at ByteDance, and we believe it’s important to protect our diverse technical and creative community,” she said in today’s announcement. “As champions for the fair use of IP, we encourage other companies to help us make the industry safer by joining LOT Network. If we work together, we can protect the industry from exploitation and continue advancing innovation, which is key to the growth and success of the entire community.”

There’s another reason companies are so eager to join the group now, though, and that’s because these patent assertion entities, which had faded into the background a bit in the mid-to late-2010s, may be making a comeback. The core assumption here is a bit gloomy: Many companies seem to assume we’re in for an economic downturn. If we hit a recession, a lot of patent holders will start looking at their patent portfolios and start selling off some of their more valuable patents in order to stay afloat. Because beggars can’t be choosers, that often means they’ll sell to a patent troll if that troll is the highest bidder. Last year, a patent troll sued Uber using a patent sold by IBM, for example (and IBM gets a bit of a bad rap for this, but, hey, it’s business).

That’s what happened after the last recession — though it typically takes a few years for the effect to be felt. Nothing in the patent world moves quickly.

Now, when LOT members sell to a troll, that troll can’t sue other LOT members over it. Take IBM, for example, which joined LOT last year.

“People give IBM a lot of grief and criticism for selling to PAEs, but at least IBM is giving everybody a chance to get a free license,” Seddon told me. “IBM joined LOT last year and what IBM is effectively doing is saying to everybody, ‘look, I joined LOT.’ And they put all of their entire patent portfolio into LOT. And they’re saying to everybody, ‘look, I have the right to sell my patents to anybody I want, and I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder. And if I sell it to a patent troll and you don’t join LOT — and if you get sued by a troll, is that my fault or your fault? Because if you join LOT, you could have gotten a free license.’ ”

Proptech startup Knock secures $20M to grow SaaS platform for property managers

By Mary Ann Azevedo

In recent years, the U.S. has seen more renters than at any point since at least 1965, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau housing data. 

Competition for renters is fierce and property managers are turning to technology to get a leg up.

To meet that demand, Seattle-based Knock – one startup that has developed tools to give property management companies a competitive edge – has raised $20 million in a growth funding round led by Fifth Wall Ventures.

Existing backers Madrona Venture Group, Lead Edge Capital, Second Avenue Partners and Seven Peaks Ventures also participated in the financing, which brings the company’s total capital raised to $47 million.

Demetri Themelis and Tom Petry co-founded Knock in 2014 after renting “in super competitive markets” such as New York City, San Francisco and Seattle. 

“After meeting with property management companies, it was eye-opening to learn about the total gap across their tech stacks,” Themelis recalled.

Knock’s goal is to provide CRM tools to modernize front office operations for these companies so they can do things like offer virtual tours and communicate with renters via text, email or social media from “a single conversation screen.” For renters, it offers an easier way to communicate and engage with landlords. 

“Apartment buildings, like almost every customer-driven business, compete with each other by attracting, converting and retaining customers,” Themelis said. “For property management companies, these customers are renters.”

The startup — which operates as a SaaS business — has seen an uptick in growth, quadrupling its revenue over the past two years. Its software is used by hundreds of the largest property management companies across the United States and Canada and has more than 1.5 million apartment units using the platform. Starwood Capital Group, ZRS, FPI and Cushman & Wakefield (formerly Pinnacle) are among its users.

As Petry explains it, Knock serves as the sales inbox (chat, SMS, phone, email), sales calendar and CRM systems, all in one. 

“We also automate certain sales tasks like outreach and appointment scheduling, while also surfacing which sales opportunities need the most attention at any given time, for both new leases as well as renewals,” he said.

Image Credit: Knock

The company, Themelis said, was well-prepared for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our software supports property management companies, which operate high-density apartment buildings that people live and work in,” he told TechCrunch. “You can’t just ‘shut them down,’ which has made multifamily resilient and even grow in comparison to retail and industrial real estate.”

For example, when lockdowns went into effect, in-person property tours declined by an estimated 80% in a matter of weeks.

Knock did things like help property managers transition to a centralized and remote leasing model so remote agents could work across a large portfolio of properties rather than in a single on-site leasing office, noted Petry.

It also helped them adopt self-guided, virtual and live video-based leasing tools, so prospective renters could tour properties in person on their own or virtually.

“This transformation and modernization became a huge tailwind for our business in 2020,” Petry said. “Not only did we have a record year in terms of new customers, revenue growth and revenue retention, but our customers outperformed market averages for occupancy and rent growth as well.”

Looking ahead, the company says it will be using its new capital to (naturally!) hire across product, engineering, sales, marketing, customer success, finance and human resources divisions. It expects to grow headcount by 40% to 50% before year-end. It also plans to expand its product portfolio to include AI communications, fraud prevention, applicant screening and leasing, and intelligent forecasting. 

Fifth Wall partner Vik Chawla, who is joining Knock’s board of directors, pointed out that the macroeconomic environment is driving institutional capital into multifamily real estate at an accelerated pace. This makes Knock’s offering even more timely in its importance, in the firm’s view.

The startup, he believes, outshines its competitors in terms of quality of product, technical prowess and functionality.

“The Knock team has accomplished so much in just a short period of time by attracting very high quality product design and engineering talent to ameliorate a nuanced pain point in the tenant acquisition process,” Chawla told TechCrunch.

In terms of fitting with its investment thesis, Chawla said companies like Knock can both benefit from Fifth Wall’s global corporate strategic partners “and simultaneously serve as a key offering which we can share with real estate industry leaders in different countries as a potential solution for their local markets.”

From dorm rooms to board rooms: How universities are promoting entrepreneurship

By Brian Heater

Earlier this year, 15 top U.S. universities joined forces to launch a one-stop shop where corporations and startups can discover and license patents.

Working in concert, Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, the University of Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn, Princeton, SUNY Binghamton, UC Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Southern California and Yale formed The University Technology Licensing Program LLC (UTLP)  to create a centralized pool of licensable IP.

The UTLP arrives as more higher education institutions are beefing up their investment in the entrepreneurial pipeline to help more students launch startups after graduation. In some instances, schools serve as accelerators, providing students with resources and helping them connect with VCs to find seed funding.

To get a better look at the new program and more insight into the university-to-startup pipeline, we spoke to:


The UTLP initiative seems to be more focused on licensing IP to existing companies, rather than accelerating university startups.

Orin Herskowitz: The UTLP effort is really much more about licensing to the somewhat broken interface between universities and very large companies in the tech space when it comes to licensing intellectual property. But I know USC and Columbia and many of our peers, especially over the last three to seven years, have pivoted in a massive way to helping our faculty students fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams and launch startups around this exciting university technology.

The word “broken” jumped out at me. Historically, what has the problem been?

Orin Herskowitz: Universities have traditionally been a source of amazing, life-saving and life-improving inventions, for decades. There’s been a ton of new drugs and medical devices, cybersecurity improvements, and search engines, like Google, that have come out of universities over the years, that were federally funded and developed in the labs, and then licensed to either a startup or the industry. And that’s been great. At least over the last couple of decades, that interface has worked really, really well in some fields, but less well in others. So, in the life sciences, in energy, in advanced materials, in those industries, a lot of the time, these innovations that end up having a huge impact on society are based really on one or two or three core eureka moments. There’s like one or two patents that underlie an enormous new cancer drug, for instance.

In the tech space though, it’s a very different dynamic because, a lot of the time, these inventions are incredibly important and they do launch a whole new generation of products and services, but the problem is that a new device, like an iPhone, or a piece of software, might rely on dozens or even hundreds of innovations from across many different universities, as opposed to just one or two.

Obviously not every breakthrough necessitates the launch of a startup. I assume that the vast majority of these things that are coming would make the most sense to work with existing companies.

Jennifer Dyer: We’ve all had this renewed focus on innovation within the university and really helping our students and faculty that want to start companies, launch those companies. If you look at the space, helping educate our students that launching a company in a high-tech space may mean that they have to go out and acquire 100 different licenses, so maybe it doesn’t make sense. We’re going to be doing nonexclusive licensing, and it doesn’t preclude anyone from moving forward with this technology. This is probably the first pool for nonstandard essential patents in the high-tech space, which makes it somewhat unique. Because if you look back, most of the pools have been around standard essential patents.

The question of exclusivity is an interesting one. You wouldn’t grant exclusive rights for the right fee?

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