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Nigeria’s Paga acquires Apposit, confirms Mexico and Ethiopia expansion

By Jake Bright

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga has acquired Apposit, a software development company based in Ethiopia, for an undisclosed amount.

That’s just part of Paga’s news. The Lagos based startup will also launch its payment products in Mexico this year and in Ethiopia imminently, CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch

The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.

Repat founders

Behind the acquisition is a story threaded with serendipity, return, and collaboration.

Both Paga and Apposit were founded by repatriate entrepreneurs. Oviosu did his MBA at Stanford University and worked at Cisco Systems before returning to Nigeria.

Apposit CEO Adam Abate moved back to Ethiopia 17 years ago for an assignment in the country’s Ministry of Finance, after studying at Brown University and working in fintech in New York. 

“I put together a team…to build…public financial management systems for the country. And during the process…brought in my best friend Eric Chijioke…to be a technical engineer,” said Abate.

The two teamed up with Simon Solomon in 2007 to co-found Apposit, with a focus on building large-scale enterprise software for Africa.

Apposit partners (L-R) Adam Abate, Simon Solomon, Eric Chijioke, Gideon Abate

A year later, Oviosu met Chijioke when he crashed at his house while visiting Ethiopia for a wedding. It just so happened Chijioke’s brother was his roommate at Stanford.

That meeting began an extended conversation between the two on digital-finance innovation in Africa and eventually led to a Paga partnership with Apposit in 2010.

Apposit dedicated an engineering team to build Paga’s payment platform, Eric Chijioke became Paga’s CTO (while maintaining his Apposit role) and Apposit backed Paga.

“We aligned ourselves as African entrepreneurs…which then developed into a close relationship where we became…investors in Paga and strategically aligned,” said Abate.

African roots, global ambitions

Fast forward a decade, and the two companies have come pretty far. Apposit has grown its business into a team of 63 engineers and technicians and has racked up a list of client partnerships. The company helped digitize the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange and has contracted on IT and software solutions with banks non-profits and brick and mortar companies.

For a decade, Apposit has also supported Paga’s payment product development.

Paga Interfaces

Over that period, Oviosu and team went to work building Paga’s platform and driving digital payment adoption in Nigeria, home to Africa’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

That’s been no small task considering Nigeria’s percentage of unbanked was pegged as high as at 70% in 2011 and still lingers around 60% in 2017 by, according to The Global Findex database.

Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.

Paga products work on iOS, Android, and basic USSD phones using a star, hashtag option. The company has remittance partnerships with the likes of Western Union and allows for third-party integration of its app.

Since inception, the startup has processed 104 million transactions worth $6.6 billion, according to Oviosu.

With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers.  The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support expansion.

Paga plans its Mexico launch in 2020, according to Oviosu.

Adam Abate is now CEO of Paga Ethiopia, where Paga plans to go live as soon as it gains a local banking license. The East African nation of 100 million, with the continent’s seventh largest economy, is bidding to become Africa’s next startup hub, though it still lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria and Kenya — in startup formation, ISP options and VC.

Ethiopia has also been slow to adopt digital finance, with less than 1% of the population using mobile-money, compared to 73% for Kenya, Africa’s mobile-payments leader.

Paga aims to shift the financial needle in the country. “The goal is straight-forward. We want Ethiopians to use the Paga wallet as their payment account. So it’s about digitizing cash transactions and driving financial services,” said Oviosu.

Paga CEO Tayo Oviosu

With the Apposit acquisition and country expansion, he also looks to grow Paga’s model in Africa and beyond, as an emerging markets fintech solution.

“There are several very large countries around the world in Africa, Latin America, Asia where these [financial inclusion] problems still exist. So our strategy is not an African strategy…We want to go where these problems exist in a large way and build a global payments business,” Oviosu said.

Fintech competition in Nigeria

As it grows abroad, Paga faces greater competition in Nigeria. For the last decade, South Africa and Kenya — with the success of Safaricom’s  M-Pesa product — have been Africa’s standouts in digital payments.

But over the last several years, Nigeria has become a magnet for VC and fintech startups. This trend reached a high-point in 2019 when Chinese investors put $220 million into Opera owned OPay and Transsion backed PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale in Nigeria and broader Africa.

That’s a hefty war chest compared to Paga’s total VC haul of $34 million, according to Crunchbase.

Oviosu names product market fit and benefits from the company’s expansion as factors that will keep it ahead of these well-funded new entrants.

“That’s where the world-class technology comes in,” he said.

“We also take a perspective that we cannot build every use-case,” he said — contrasting Paga’s model to Opera in Africa, which has launched multiple startup verticals around its OPay product, from ride-hailing to food-delivery.

Oviosu compares Paga’s approach to PayPal, which allows third-party developers to shape businesses around PayPal as the payment solution.

With its Apposit acquisition and plans for continued expansion, PayPal may become more than a model for Paga.

Founder Tayo Oviosu sees big fintech players, such as PayPal and Alipay, as future competitors with Paga’s planned expansion into more emerging markets.

Skylo raises $103 million to affordably connect the Internet of Things to satellite networks

By Darrell Etherington

One of the biggest opportunities in the new space economy lies in taking the connectivity made possibly by ever-growing communications satellite constellations, and making that useful for things and companies here on Earth. Startup Skylo, which emerged from stealth today with a $103 million Series B funding announcement, is one of the players making that possible in an affordable way.

The funding brings Skylo’s total raised to $116 million, following a $14 million Series A. This new round was led by Softbank Group (which at this point carries a complicated set of connotations) and includes existing investors DCM and Eric Schmidt’s Innovation Endeavors. Skylo’s business is based on connecting Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including sensors, industrial equipment, logistics hardware and more, to satellite networks using the cellular-based Narrowband IoT protocol. Its network is already deployed on current geostationary satellites, too, meaning its customers can get up and running without waiting for any new satellites or constellations with dedicated technology to launch.

Already, Skylo has completed tests of its technology with commercial partners in real-world usage, including partners in private enterprise and government, across industries including fisheries, maritime logistics, automotive and more. The company’s main claim to advantage over other existing solutions is that it can offer connectivity for as little as $1 per seat, along with hardware that sells for under $100, which it says adds up to a cost savings of as much as 95 percent vs. other satellite IoT connectivity available on the market.

Its hardware, the Skylo Hub, is a satellite terminal that connects to its network on board geostationary satellites, acting as a “hot spot” to make that available to standard IoT sensors and devices. It’s roughly 8″ by 8″, can be powered internally via battery or plugged in, and is easy for customers to install on their own without any special expertise.

The company was founded in 2017, by CEO Parth Trivedi, CTO Dr. Andrew Nuttall and Chief Hub Architect Dr. Andrew Kalman. Trivedi is an MIT Aerospace and Astronautical engineering graduate; Nuttal has a Ph.D in Aeronautics from Stanford, and Kalman is a Stanford professor who previously founded CubeSat component kit startup Pumpkin, Inc.

‘PigeonBot’ brings flying robots closer to real birds

By Devin Coldewey

Try as they might, even the most advanced roboticists on Earth struggle to recreate the effortless elegance and efficiency with which birds fly through the air. The “PigeonBot” from Stanford researchers takes a step towards changing that by investigating and demonstrating the unique qualities of feathered flight.

On a superficial level, PigeonBot looks a bit, shall we say, like a school project. But a lot of thought went into this rather haphazard looking contraption. Turns out the way birds fly is really not very well understood, as the relationship between the dynamic wing shape and positions of individual feathers are super complex.

Mechanical engineering professor David Lentink challenged some of his graduate students to “dissect the biomechanics of the avian wing morphing mechanism and embody these insights in a morphing biohybrid robot that features real flight feathers,” taking as their model the common pigeon — the resilience of which Lentink admires.

As he explains in an interview with the journal Science:

The first Ph.D.student, Amanda Stowers, analyzed the skeletal motion and determined we only needed to emulate the wrist and finger motion in our robot to actuate all 20 primary and 20 secondary flight feathers. The second student, Laura Matloff,uncovered how the feathers moved via a simple linear response to skeletal movement. The robotic insight here is that a bird wing is a gigantic underactuated system in which a bird doesn’t have to constantly actuate each feather individually. Instead, all the feathers follow wrist and finger motion automatically via the elastic ligament that connects the feathers to the skeleton. It’s an ingenious system that greatly simplifies feather position control.

In addition to finding that the individual control of feathers is more automatic than manual, the team found that tiny microstructures on the feathers form a sort of one-way Velcro-type material that keeps them forming a continuous surface rather than a bunch of disconnected ones. These and other findings were published in Science, while the robot itself, devised by “the third student,” Eric Chang, is described in Science Robotics.

Using 40 actual pigeon feathers and a super-light frame, Chang and the team made a simple flying machine that doesn’t derive lift from its feathers — it has a propeller on the front — but uses them to steer and maneuver using the same type of flexion and morphing as the birds themselves do when gliding.

Studying the biology of the wing itself, then observing and adjusting the PigeonBot systems, the team found that the bird (and bot) used its “wrist” when the wing was partly retracted, and “fingers” when extended, to control flight. But it’s done in a highly elegant fashion that minimizes the thought and the mechanisms required.

It’s the kind of thing that could inform improved wing design for aircraft, which currently rely in many ways on principles established more than a century ago. Passenger jets, of course, don’t need to dive or roll on short notice, but drones and other small craft might find the ability extremely useful.

“The underactuated morphing wing principles presented here may inspire more economical and simpler morphing wing designs for aircraft and robots with more degrees of freedom than previously considered,” write the researchers in the Science Robotics paper.

Up next for the team is observation of more bird species to see if these techniques are shared with others. Lentink is working on a tail to match the wings, and separately on a new bio-inspired robot inspired by falcons, which could potentially have legs and claws as well. “I have many ideas,” he admitted.

Verbit raises $31M Series B to expand its transcription and captioning service

By Frederic Lardinois

Verbit, a Tel Aviv- and New York-based startup that provides AI-assisted transcription and captioning services to professional users, today announced that it has raised a $31 million Series B round led by growth equity firm Stripes. Existing investors Viola Ventures, Vertex Ventures, HV Ventures, Oryzn Capital and ClalTech are also participating in the round, which brings the company’s total funding, which includes a $23 million Series A round in 2019, to $65 million.

The three-year-old company plans to use the new funding to expand to new verticals and add new languages. Currently, its focus is on the media and legal industries, as well as educational institutions. In total, the company currently has more than 150 customers that including Harvard, Stanford and Coursera . Verbit also plans to double its headcount in 2020.

Verbit’s AI-based tools get to about 90 percent accuracy but it also works with about fifteen thousand human transcribers who make revisions as necessary in order to get to 99 percent accuracy. As with virtually all machine-learning systems, those changes then flow back into the system in order to improve its accuracy.

Recently, the company also launched its real-time transcription service and opened its New York office.

“When I established Verbit three years ago, I didn’t anticipate we would become one of the market-leading companies in our industry so quickly,” said Tom Livne, CEO and co-founder of Verbit. “This latest financing round is an important milestone in Verbit’s journey and strengthens the incredible momentum we had in 2019. The collaboration with Stripes is a great indicator of Verbit’s category-leading product and will allow us to continue innovating in the market.”

Larry Page’s secret war on the flu

By Arman Tabatabai

Now that Larry Page has stepped down as CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, he could be following in Bill Gates’s footsteps and tackling global health challenges.

According to charity and business documents obtained by TechCrunch, the billionaire co-founder of Google has been quietly waging a war on the flu.

Thousands of children and teachers in San Francisco’s Bay Area will receive free flu shots at their schools this year from Shoo The Flu, which describes itself as a “community-based initiative.” In fact, it is wholly funded by a for-profit company controlled by Page. Another of his companies, Flu Lab, is supporting multi-million dollar efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine. Neither effort makes public Page’s role in them.

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