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Today — January 19th 2021Your RSS feeds

Fintech startup Vise brings on Andrew Fong (formerly Dropbox) as CTO

By Jordan Crook

Vise, a fintech firm that focuses on helping financial advisors rather than automating them out of existence, has today announced that its bringing on Andrew Fong as its Chief Technology Officer.

Fong hails from Dropbox, where he served as VP of Infrastructure Engineering. He actually started out as a Site Reliability Engineer at Dropbox back in 2012 climbing the ranks to Engineering Director, and then Senior Director of Engineering – Head of Infrastructure before becoming to vice president.

Before Dropbox, Fong was an engineer at YouTube and Aol.

Vise brought on Fong to scale up its technical team following its most recent fundraise, a $45 million in Series B led by Sequoia Capital. In total, Vise has raised $63 million since launching on the TC Disrupt stage in 2019.

You can check out the video of their demo here.

Vise uses AI to support financial advisors in their relationships with clients, giving them the ability to justify and explain (with data) the reason for making this or that investment, as well as the ability to customize a portfolio quickly.

Top of mind for Fong is scaling up the engineering department from 20 people to 75 by the end of the year, and Fong explained that diversity, equity and inclusion must be front and center in that endeavor.

“Vise is in the early stages of building out its engineering organization,” Fong told TechCrunch. “It’s imperative that we weave in DEI as a first principle to our recruiting at this stage and ensure we are maturing our processes with DEI in mind.”

At Dropbox, Fong started out as a team leader building a team of 40 and by the time he left, led a team of more than 250 people. He explained that he learned a lot during that 8+ year period, and made a lot of mistakes, and was eager to see how that knowledge could be reapplied at a different firm.

“What would it be like to do this again with the knowledge I have now?” asked Fong. “What things would I do differently? How would I improve upon it? How can I actually take that knowledge and leverage it in a way that helps others in the industry or my peers at Vise? Can I provide a perspective that they don’t necessarily have today?”

Fong was first connected with Vise while he was still at Dropbox. He spoke to Vise cofounder Runik Mehrotra on an explanatory call, and remembers feeling like no matter where his path took him, he wanted to stay connected to Mehrotra and Vise.

“This is somebody that just has something about him,” he said of Mehrotra. “There’s just like an ‘it’ factor that made me feel like I wanted to work with him.”

Fong says that recruiting during COVID, with extremely limited face-to-face contact, is one of the biggest challenges ahead for both himself and Vise in general.

ETH spin-off LatticeFlow raises $2.8M to help build trustworthy AI systems

By Frederic Lardinois

LatticeFlow, an AI startup that was spun out of ETH Zurich in 2020, today announced that it has raised a $2.8 million seed funding round led by Swiss deep-tech fund btov and Global Founders Capital, which previously backed the likes of Revolut, Slack and Zalando.

The general idea behind LatticeFlow is to build tools that help AI teams build and deploy AI models that are safe, reliable and trustworthy. The problem today, the team argues, is that models get very good at finding the right statistical patterns to hit a given benchmark. That makes them inflexible, though, since these models were optimized for accuracy in a lab setting, not for robustness in the real world.

“One of the most commonly used paradigms for evaluating machine learning models is just aggregate metrics, like accuracy. And, of course, this is a super coarse representation of how good a model really is,” Pavol Bielik, the company’s CTO explained. “What we want to do is, we provide systematic ways of monitoring models, assessing their reliability across different relevant data slices and then also provide tools for improving these models.”

Image Credits: LatticeFlow

Building these kinds of models that are more flexible yet still provide robust results will take a new arsenal of tools, though, as well as the right team with deep expertise in these areas. Clearly, though, this is a founding team with the right background. In addition to CTO Bielik, the founding team includes Petar Tsankov, the company’s CEO and former senior researcher and lecturer at ETH Zurich, as well as ETH professors Martin Vechev, who leads the Secure, Reliable and Intelligence Systems lab at ETH, and Andreas Krause, who leads ETH’s Learning & Adaptive Systems lab. Tsankov’s last startup, DeepCode, was acquired by cybersecurity firm Snyk in 2020.

It’s also worth noting that Vechev, who previously co-founded ETH spin-off ChainSecurity, and his group at ETH previously developed ERAN, a verifier for large deep learning models with millions of parameters, that last year won the first competition for certifying deep neural networks. While the team was already looking at creating a company before winning this competition, Vechev noted that gave the team the confirmation that it was on the right path.

Image Credits: LatticeFlow

“We want to solve the main AI problem, which is making AI usable. This is the overarching goal,” Vechev told me. “[…] I don’t think you can actually found the company just purely based on the certification work. I think the kinds of skills that people have in the company, my group, Andreas [Krause]’s group, they all complement each other and cover a huge space, which I think is very, very unique. I don’t know of other companies who have covered this range of skills in these pressing points and have done groundbreaking work before.”

LatticeWorks already has a set of pilot customers who are trialing its tools. These include Swiss railways (SBB), which is using it to build a tool for automatic rail inspections, Germany’s Federal Cyber Security Bureau and the U.S. Army. The team is also working with other large enterprises that are using its tools to improve their computer vision models.

“Machine Learning (ML) is one of the core topics at SBB, as we see a huge potential in its application for an improved, intelligent and automated monitoring of our railway infrastructure,” said Dr. Ilir Fetai and Andre Roger, the leads of SBB’s AI team. “The project on robust and reliable AI with LatticeFlow, ETH, and Siemens has a crucial role in enabling us to fully exploit the advantages of using ML.”

For now, LatticeFlow remains in early access. The team plans to use the funding to accelerate its product development and bring on new customers. The team also plans to build out a presence in the U.S. in the near future.

K Health expands into virtual childcare and raises $132 million at a $1.5 billion valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

K Health, the virtual health care provider that uses machine learning to lower the cost of care by providing the bulk of the company’s health assessments, is launching new tools for childcare on the heels of raising cash that values the company at $1.5 billion.

The $132 million round raised in December will help the company expand and help pay for upgrades including an integration with most electronic health records — an integration that’s expected by the second quarter.

Throughout 2020 K Health has leveraged its position operating at the intersection of machine learning and consumer healthcare to raised $222 million in a single year.

This appetite from investors shows how large the opportunity is in consumer healthcare as companies look to use technology to make care more affordable.

For K Health, that means a monthly subscription to its service of $9 for unlimited access to the service and physicians on the platform, as well as a $19 per-month virtual mental health offering and a $19 fee for a one-time urgent care consultation.

To patients and investors the pitch is that the data K Health has managed to acquire through partnerships with organizations like the Israel health maintenance organization Maccabi Healthcare Services, which gave up decades of anonymized data on patients and health outcomes to train K Health’s predictive algorithm, can assess patients and aid the in diagnoses for the company’s doctors.

In theory that means the company’s service essentially acts as a virtual primary care physician, holding a wealth of patient information that, when taken together, might be able to spot underlying medical conditions faster or provide a more holistic view into patient care.

For pharmaceutical companies that could mean insights into population health that could be potentially profitable avenues for drug discovery.

In practice, patients get what they pay for.

The company’s mental health offering uses medical doctors who are not licensed psychiatrists to perform their evaluations and assessments, according to one provider on the platform, which can lead to interactions with untrained physicians that can cause more harm than good.

While company chief executive Allon Bloch is likely correct in his assessment that most services can be performed remotely (Bloch puts the figure at 90%), they should be performed remotely by professionals who have the necessary training.

There are limits to how much heavy lifting an algorithm or a generalist should do when it comes to healthcare, and it appears that K Health wants to push those limits.

“Drug referrals, acute issues, prevention issues, most of those can be done remotely,” Bloch said. “There’s an opportunity to do much better and potentially cheaper. 

K Health has already seen hundreds of thousands of patients either through its urgent care offering or its subscription service and generated tens of millions in revenue in 2020, according to Bloch. He declined to disclose how many patients used the urgent care service vs. the monthly subscription offering.

Telemedicine companies, like other companies providing services remotely, have thrived during the pandemic. Teladoc and Amwell, two of the early pioneers in virtual medicine have seen their share prices soar. Companies like Hims, that provide prescriptions for elective conditions that aren’t necessarily covered by health, special purpose acquisition companies at valuations of $1.6 billion.

Backing K Health are a group of investors led by GGV Capital and Valor Equity Partners. Kaiser Permanente’s pension fund and the investment offices of the owners of 3G Capital (the Brazilian investment firm that owns Burger King and Kraft Heinz), along with 14W, Max Ventures, Pico Partners, Marcy Venture Partners, Primary Venture Partners and BoxGroup, also participated in the round. 

Organizations working with the company include Maccabi Healthcare; the Mayo Clinic, which is investigating virtual care models with the company; and Anthem, which has white labeled the K Health service and provides it to some of the insurer’s millions of members.

LeoCare raises $18.1 million for its insurance products designed to fit in a mobile app

By Romain Dillet

French startup LeoCare has raised a €15 million funding round. Felix Capital, Ventech and Daphni are participating in today’s funding round. The company is selling a portfolio of insurance products with a focus on the signup process and user experience. You can control your insurance products from a mobile app.

Chances are you already pay for multiple insurance products. But when is the last time you checked your coverage and adjusted your contract? When people sign up to a new insurance product, they tend to set it and forget it.

That’s why insurance companies don’t invest a ton of money on mobile apps, control panels and user-facing features. LeoCare believes there’s room for a player that does the opposite.

LeoCare can insure your home, your car, your motorbike and your smartphone. You can sign up from the company’s website or install a mobile app. The company has tried to optimize the onboarding process with easy-to-understand questions and an indicator that tells you if you’re going to pay a bit more or a lot more if you choose one option or another.

When you sign up, you get your insurance contract right away. This way, you can send it to a landlord a few minutes later. But LeoCare also helps you manage your contract later down the road. For instance, many LeoCare customers chose to lower their car insurance premiums during lockdown. You can also add another driver for a couple of weeks.

Behind the scenes, LeoCare acts as a managing general agent. The startup partners with several insurance companies and sells its insurance products under its own brand. The company currently charges €1 million in premiums per month and has 20,000 customers.

63% of contracts cover a car, 26% of contracts cover a home, 7% of contracts are for motorcyclists and 4% of contracts focus on smartphones. And LeoCare is growing rapidly with a current month-over-month growth rate of 38%.

Up next, the company wants to launch new features, such as a bot that lets you check the status of your case. LeoCare is also working on a feature that lets you receive a notification when you’re driving and there are usually a lot of road accidents in the area.

Finally, the startup wants to launch a marketplace of professionals. This could be helpful if you’re looking for a plumber for instance. And it could represent a new revenue stream for the startup.

LeoCare plans to grow its insurance portfolio sevenfold by the end of 2021. The team will also grow from 35 to 80 people.

Yesterday — January 18th 2021Your RSS feeds

Singapore-based Volopay raises $2.1 million seed round to build a “financial control center” for businesses

By Catherine Shu

Volopay, a Singapore-based startup building a “financial control center” for businesses, announced today it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding. The round was led by Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen, and included participation from Soma Capital, CP Ventures, Y Combinator, VentureSouq, the founders of Razorpay, Antler and other angel investors.

The funding will be used on hiring, product development, strategic partnerships and Volopay’s international expansion. It plans to launch operations in Australia later this month. The company currently has about 100 clients, including Smart Karma, Dathena, Medline, Sensorflow and Beam.

Launched in 2019 by Rajith Shaiji and Rajesh Raikwar, Volopay took part in Y Combinator’s accelerator program last year. It was created after chief executive officer Shaji, who worked for several fintech companies before launching Volopay, became frustrated by the process of reconciling business expenses, especially with accounting departments located in different countries. Shaiji and Raikwar also saw that many companies, especially startups and SMEs, struggled to track different kinds of spending, including subscriptions and vendor payments.

Most of Volopay’s clients are in the tech sector and have about 15 to 150 employees. Volopay’s platform integrates multicurrency corporate cards (issued by Visa Corporate), domestic and international bank transfers, automated payments and expense and accounting software, allowing companies to save money on foreign exchange fees and reconcile expenses more quickly.

In order to speed up its development, Volopay integrated Airwallex’s APIs. Its corporate cards offer up to 2% cash back on software subscriptions, hosting and international travel, which Volopay says are the three top expense categories for tech companies, and it in November 2020, it launched a credit facility for corporate cards to help give SMEs more liquidity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to traditional credit products, like credit cards and working capital loans, Shaji said Volopay’s credit facility, which is also issued by Visa Corporate, has a more competitive fixed-free pricing structure that depends on the level of credit used. This means companies know how much they owe in advance, which in turn helps them manage their cashflows more easily. The average credit line provided by Volopay is about $30,000.

Since TechCrunch last covered Volopay in July 2020, it has grown 70% month on month in terms of total funds flowing through its platform, Shaji said. It also launched two new features: A bill pay feature that allows clients to transfer money domestically and internationally with low foreign exchange rates and transaction fees, and the credit facility. The bill pay feature now contributes about 40% to Volopay’s total payment volume, while the credit product makes up 30% of its card spending.

Shaji told TechCrunch that Volopay decided to expand into Australia because because not only is it a much larger market than Singapore, but “SMEs in Australia are very comfortable using paid digital software to streamline internal operations and scale their businesses.” He added that there is currently no other provider in Australia that offers both expense management and credit to SMEs like Volopay.

Updated to add Antler as an investor.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

By Anthony Ha

Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”

That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.

“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”

In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?

Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.

From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.

There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.

The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.

The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.

Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.

No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.

I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.

So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?

For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.

But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.

People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?

So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.

It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.

Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.

Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.

Startups at CES showed how tech can help elderly people and their caregivers

By Catherine Shu

The COVID-19 pandemic shined a harsh spotlight on the challenges many elderly people face. Older adults are among the highest-risk groups for developing cases that need hospitalization and nursing homes were especially vulnerable to outbreaks. While dealing with COVID-19, the elderly have also faced many other problems, including the difficulty of accessing medical care for chronic conditions during lockdowns and isolation.

Many of these issues won’t go away after the pandemic. According to the United Nations, the global population of people 65 and over is growing faster than any other age group. At the same time, there is a critical shortage of caregivers, especially for elderly people who want to continue living at home instead of moving into nursing homes.

Tech can help in many ways: by helping caregivers (and reducing burnout), allowing seniors to perform health monitoring at home and creating tools to combat isolation. During CES, there were several “age-tech” presentations. One of the most notable was AARP Innovation Lab, the non-profit’s startup accelerator program. It presented nine companies at the virtual show.

Zibrio's smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

Zibrio’s smart scale for assessing postural stability, or balance

One common theme among AARP’s group was tech that helps elderly people “age in place,” or stay in their homes or communities instead of moving into a nursing home. For example, Wheel Pad designs accessible home and work spaces that can be installed into existing structures and sites. Mighty Health is an app that pairs users with health coaches, certified trainers and personalized nutrition plans, while Zibrio, a scale that assesses users’ balance to predict if they are at risk for a fall, can also be incorporated into at-home routines.

Other startups from AARP Innovation Lab focus on helping caregivers, too. For example, FallCall Solutions’ creates Apple Watch apps that send alerts if a fall is detected and help family members check on users. Another app, called Ianacare, helps family members coordinate caregiving tasks and ask for support. End-of-life planning is one of the most emotionally difficult processes for families, and Cake, an “end-of-life platform” helps by providing tools for estate and health care planning, as well as resources to help relatives cope with caregiving issues and grief.

Other startups center on medical care. For people with chronic conditions, Folia Health helps monitor the progress of treatments. On the clinical side, Embleema’s software allows clinical investigators to share data and design studies, making pharmaceutical research more efficient.

Other noteworthy age-tech startups at CES included Nobi, a smart lamp that automatically turns on when users stand up and sends alerts to family members if they fall. Nobi can also be used in residences and nursing homes.

Caregiver Smart Solution's app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solution’s app for caregivers to coordinate tasks

Caregiver Smart Solutions is a multi-faceted platform that makes it easier for seniors to stay at home with a machine learning-based app for early detection of potential health issues, fall sensors, monitors and emergency buttons. For people with incontinence, DFree, a wearable device, can reduce stress by monitoring how full their bladder is with an ultrasound sensor and keeping track of their average time between bathroom visits. It’s available for both consumers and health care facilities.

A diagram of companion robot Cutii's features

A diagram of companion robot Cutii’s features

For elderly people living in nursing homes, Rendever is a virtual reality platform that wants to help reduce isolation. It can be used with reminiscence therapy, which guides individuals with dementia through experiences that remind them of their pasts, and to allow virtual travel to landmarks. Cutii, a companion robot, also seeks to reduce loneliness. While companion robots have been a mainstay of CES for years, Cutii sets itself apart with entertainment like music, games and live events. It also has video call and night patrol features.

Before yesterdayYour RSS feeds

No one knows what anything is worth

By Alex Wilhelm

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. Click here if you want it in your inbox every Saturday morning.

Ready? Let’s talk money, startups and spicy IPO rumors.


It was yet another week of startups that became unicorns going public, only to see their valuation soar. Already marked up by their IPO pricing, seeing so many unicorns achieve such rich public-market valuations made us wonder who was mispricing whom.

It’s a matter of taste, a semantic argument, a tempest in a teacup. What matters more is that precisely no one knows what anything is worth, and that’s making a lot of people rich and/or mad.

This is not a new theme. I’ve touched on it for years, but what matters for us today is that there appear to be three distinct valuation bands for companies, and the gaps between them do not appear ready to shrink. You could even argue that they have widened.

Band 1 is the private capital cohort. These are the folks who valued Affirm at $19.93 per share in its September 2020 round and Roblox at $4 billion in February of 2020. Now Affirm is worth $116.58 per share, and Roblox is worth $29.5 billion. Whoops?

Band 2 is the long-term public investing cohort. These are folks critical in the IPO pricing context. They are willing to pay more for startups than the private capital crew. Affirm was not worth under $20 per share to this group, instead it was worth $49 per share just a few months later. Whoops?

Band 3 is the retail cohort, the /r/WallStreetBets, meme-stock, fintech Twitter rabble that are both incredibly fun to watch and also the sort of person you wouldn’t loan $500 to while in Las Vegas. They are willing to pay nearly infinite money for certain stocks — like Tesla — and often far more than the more conservative public money. Demand from the retail squad can greatly amplify the value of a newly listed company by making the supply/demand curve utterly wonky. This is how you get Poshmark more than doubling a strong IPO valuation on its first day.

Most investors do well in today’s world. Though Band 1 likes to blame Band 2 for not being willing to pay Band 3 prices, it always sounds like the private capital folks are merely complaining about sharing some of the winnings with another party.

Regardless, who really knows what anything is worth? I was recently chatting with an early-stage founder who has a history of investing — narrowing it down to 17,823 people, I know — about the price of software companies both private and public and why they may or may not make sense. He said that old valuation models at banks presumed that software companies’ growth would go to zero over time, and that profits would be rare among SaaS concerns. Both concepts were wrong, so prices went up.

But I have yet to have anyone explain to me why companies that would have been valued at 10x next year’s revenues can now get, at median, 18.1x. I have a working theory of what’s going on, but none of it points to sanity, or pricing that is grokkable through a lens that isn’t hype.

(You can hit reply to this email and tell me why I am dumb if you’d like. I will buy the person with the best valuation explanation coffee when the world works again.)

Milestones and megarounds

On the milestone front, it was a huge week for leaving the private markets and joining the Big Kid Club. Namely for Affirm and Poshmark, which priced well and started to trade. And for Bumble, which filed to go public. They are targeting a good IPO window.

But there was lots more going on, including a milestone that caught my eye. M1 Finance, a fintech startup that brings together lots of pieces of the fintech playbook into a single service, reached $3 billion in assets under management (AUM) this week. The company had reached $2 billion in AUM last September, after reaching $1 billion in February of 2020.

Why do we care? The company previously told TechCrunch that it works to generate revenues worth around 1% of AUM. If that percentage has held past its October, 2020 Series C, the company just added around $10 million in ARR in under half a year. That’s a pace of revenue creation that made me sit up and take notice. (Shoutout Josh for never shutting up about the Midwest.)

But I really bring up the M1 Finance milestone for a different reason. Namely that I am consistently surprised at how deep certain markets are. Neobanks that are still growing; the OKR software market’s surprising depth; the ability of M1 to accrete deposits in a market with so many incumbents and well-funded startups.

Perhaps this is why prices make no sense; if you can’t see the edge limits of TAM, can anything be overpriced?

Moving on, some quick notes on things from the week that mattered:

  • GitLab is now worth $6 billion and hit $150 million in annual recurring revenue last year. It grew 75%, we presume year-over-year in its most recent quarter.
  • Fintech upstart LendingPoint raised $125 million at an undisclosed valuation.
  • NYC-based Paige raised $100 million. It uses computers to help make diagnoses.

One more VC Visa-Plaid take

Aziz Gilani, a managing director at Mercury Fund and an advocate of Texas (observe his Twitter handle), wrote in late regarding our query for investor notes on the Visa-Plaid breakup. You can read the rest here.

But who are we to deprive you of useful notes. And Gilani is a nice person. So, here are his $0.02:

My big take-away on the Plaid/Visa deal falling apart is about how fast everything in 2021 is moving. Arguably the biggest advantage of SPACs over direct listings and IPOs is how fast those liquidity events can get done. In a world in which valuation[s] change week to week, the delays created by the DOJ can kill a deal – even if the DOJ would eventually lose in court.

I’m philosophically super negative about the government imposing their will, but I’m also personally excited about the current wave of insurgent startups not getting gobbled up by the FAANGs of the world. For the last several years too many startups fell victim to the “quick exit” mentality personified by Mint selling so fast to Intuit. With fast/cheap capital freely available, today’s crop of startups are going big.

Worth chewing on.

Odds/Ends

What a week. I have only a few things left for you, including some early-stage rounds that I could not get thanks to waves arms around generally but wanted to flag all the same.

  • Goldman Sachs chose Marqeta for Marcus. If you know what those words mean, they matter. If you don’t, congrats on having a life.
  • Nayya raised $11 million for what VentureBeat calls “an insurance benefits management platform,” including money from Felicis.
  • Minna raised €15.5 million for what Tech.eu called a “subscription management app.”
  • Muniq closed a  $8.2M Series A to sell a shake-sort-of-thing that could help with blood sugar control.
  • And from TechCrunch two more highlights, this neat Crossbeam round and more money for Moss.

Hugs,

Alex

Stay gold, ‘Plaid for X’ startups

By Natasha Mascarenhas

A failed acquisition usually triggers the same series of questions: What does this mean for early-stage startups in the sector? Will a chilling effect occur and hurt valuations? Will VCs stop funding this category? How will the exit environment look going forward?

This week gave that narrative a bullish twist. Visa and Plaid announced that they have reached a mutual agreement to no longer pursue a merger. The $5.3 billion deal had been under antitrust scrutiny from the DOJ, and eventually ended amid these regulatory challenges.

Fintech VCs and startups alike reacted to the fallen deal with aggressive optimism about Plaid’s future as an independently-owned fintech startup.

The most common arguments?

  • Plaid’s price in this current moment is far beyond $5.3 billion, so now that it is a free bird it will pursue a much larger exit
  • Plaid will go public through SPAC because it is in charge of its own destiny.
  • And my favorite: One day, Plaid will buy Visa.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Plaid CEO Zach Perret wouldn’t give too many details on the future (and whether a SPAC is involved), but he did say he has new ‘clarity’ going forward.

The fact that fintech is bullish on the future of fintech isn’t quite surprising. I will say that while one deal can never make or break a sector, a flopped merger certainly can surface the current temperature in the market. Startups Weekly readers will remember last week’s edition about how P&G’s decision not to acquire Billie could hurt DTC exit opportunities. Fintech seems unbothered and, in fact, celebratory. The only counterargument I got, via Twitter DM, is that it could set a bad precedent on big fintech mergers.

“Or maybe…corporations learn from this and look to make riskier acquisitions earlier in a company’s lifecycle because they know that if they let the company get too big they’ll lose the chance,” Rami Essaid, founder of Finmark, told me.

Only in 2021 could a $5.3 billion break-up and a DOJ investigation be considered a blessing. Rock on, ‘Plaid for X’ startups.

Before we go on, make sure to follow me on Twitter for my bad jokes and early-stage startup coverage. You can also always reach me at natasha.m@techcrunch.com.

Columbus is the new Miami which is new the San Francisco

I hope that sub-hed gave you a headache, because that’s exactly what debates about where the best place to start a company do to me. The rise of Work From Anywhere has emboldened VCs to leave San Francisco for markets such as Miami or Austin in search of the next unsung hero of their portfolios.

For investors, though, the financial benefit of moving to an emerging market might not be apparent within months, but instead years. Venture is a long game (at least most of the time).

Here’s what to know, per Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos: Drive Capital, a venture capital firm based in Columbus, Ohio, and started by two ex-Sequoia investors now has over $1.2 billion in assets. But before it had breakout companies like Root and Olive AI, Drive had to play the unusual role of investing in a region without key investing infrastructure.

Etc: Founding partner Chris Olsen explained how they set up their roots:

“We’ve had to spend a lot of time going into the universities and putting new seed managers in business and helping them fundraise and sort of building all of this infrastructure from scratch so that the next entrepreneur is out here [versus moves away], and it works. In our first year, we had inbound interest from 1,800 [startups], then it went to about 3,000 and now it’s up to about 7,000, which is more than I’ve heard any other venture firms say that they see in California. And I don’t think it’s because we’re great. I think that’s more [a reflection of the] scale of the opportunity that’s here now. One of the things that we would love to see more of is more venture capitalists coming here, because there’s certainly more opportunity than we can invest in.”

Ideal paper world powered with alternative wind and solar energy. environmental concept.

Image Credits: Paula Dani/ABlse (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The CFO Tech Stack

If you want to start a company, go to a startup and look where employees are still using an Excel sheet. The best products are the ones fueled by frustrations, right?

Here’s what to know per managing editor Danny Crichton: For a trio of Palantir alums, 15 collective years at the now-public government tech company showed a huge gap in technology for CFOs. So, they started Mosaic, a techstack to help financial officers better communicate and perform their jobs.

Etc: Co-founder Bijan Moallemi describes the mistake other platforms are making:

“Everyone wants to be strategic, but it’s so tough to do because 80% of your time is pulling data from these disparate systems, cleaning it, mapping it, updating your Excel files, and maybe 20% of [your time] is actually taking a step back and understanding what the data is telling you.”

GettyImages 946391800

Image via Getty Images / alashi

The future of consumer hardware startups beyond Peloton

Are wearables still exciting? Is consumer hardware ever going to get easier to pull off? What was the strategy that made Peloton so successful?

These questions and more are answered in the latest consumer hardware-focused Extra Crunch Survey, which brings together VCs from SOSV, Lux Capital, Shasta Ventures, and more.

Here’s what to know: Everyone is studying the Peloton success recipe. But the big question for consumer hardware startups is if the at-home fitness market’s boom is translating to other use cases.

Etc: Cyril Ebersweiler of SOSV noted that supply chain distribution disruption during COVID-19 has been difficult for category startups, but the need for innovative solutions has never been more clear.

“Everybody is waiting for new and mind-blowing experiences, and I guess we’ve all experienced the shortcomings or the magic of some IoT products over the shelter-in-place [orders]. Spatial and ambient technologies that work well will be in demand (audio or visual), while “holographic Skype” will invade households thanks to Looking Glass.”

Also: In another investor survey, five VCs weighed in on the future of cannabis in 2021.

3D render, visualization of a man holding virtual reality glasses, electronic device, head surrounded by virtual data with neon green grid. Player one ready for the VR game. Virtual experience.

Pop goes the public market

We had yet another noisy week of privately-held startups going public to a Very Warm Wall Street reception. The most opulent story of the week was definitely Affirm’s debut, which doubled its already-increased price when it started to officially trade.

Here’s what to know, per our resident IPO reporter Alex Wilhelm, who writes The Exchange:

Etc:

GettyImages 1155292858

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 11: PayPal Co-Founder & Affirm CEO Max Levchin visits “Countdown To The Closing Bell” at Fox Business Network Studios on June 11, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images)

Around TechCrunch

Extra Crunch Live is returning in a big way in 2021. We’ll be interviewing VC/founder duos about how their Series A deals went down, and Extra Crunch members will have the chance to get live feedback on their pitch deck. You can check out our plans for ECL in 2021 right here, or hit up this form to submit your pitch deck. Episodes air every Wednesday at 3pm ET/12pm PT starting in February.

And if you’re feeling extra generous, take this survey to help shape the future of TechCrunch

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

Glassdoor: Best tech companies to work for in 2021

Signal’s Brian Acton talks about exploding growth, monetization and WhatsApp data-sharing outrage

Two-year-old NUVIA sells to Qualcomm for $1.4 billion

Loop launches out of stealth to make auto insurance more equitable

Nuclear fusion tech developer General Fusion now has Shopify and Amazon founders backing it

Seen on Extra Crunch

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

Dear Sophie: What’s the new minimum salary required for H-1B visa applicants?

Equity (and a bonus Equity)

The news keeps coming so we keep recording. This week, the trio chatted about the Plaid-Visa deal, but also about the Palantir mafia‘s next big bet. In early-stage news, I covered a fintech accelerator that pivoted into an edtech accelerator and a new startup coming out of Austin that makes car insurance more equitable. We also debated SPACs for a bit, and Danny was…optimistic?

Listen to our episode, follow the pod on Twitter, and if you so please, tune into our bonus Equity episode that just came out today. It’s an episode dedicated entirely to the barrage of payments and e-commerce funding that came out this week.

Until next week,

Natasha 

The pandemic was top of mind in the tech of CES 2021

By Brian Heater

Of course COVID-19 was bound to be an unavoidable topic during the first-ever all-virtual CES. After all, the topic is at front of mind regardless of the topic these days. Close to a year into the pandemic, presenters still understandably feel obligated to address the always-present elephant in the room. Sometimes it was as simple as acknowledging the strangeness of moving from the Las Vegas Convention Center to a Microsoft-powered virtual venue. Other times it felt far more forced.

When it comes to the technology itself, there’s no doubt that the pandemic is going to have a profound effect on the industry for years to come, from health measures to remote work setups. Sometimes it’s a genuinely organic evolution aimed at adapting technology to an ever-changing world. In other cases, it can feel far more exploitative — like the consumer electronics equivalent to a beer commercial discussing “these uncertain times.”

I’ve written a lot about how the pandemic will impact robotics and AI going forward. The short version is that companies will no doubt be more enthusiastic about embracing these technologies, after bumping up against the limitations of a human workforce with a deadly and highly contagious virus spreading across the world.

We saw some glimpses of robotics’ response. Though there tends to be a far longer lead time than in the consumer category. The clearest and most immediate example had to be the prevalence of UV outfitted robotics. LG, Ubtech and Ava Robotics all bombarded my inbox with their take on the category. The desire for disinfecting technology should be clear during a pandemic, and robotics offer both a way to automate a dull and repetitious process like this, while removing a potential human viral vector from the equation.

Image Credits: Razer

UV disinfecting made appearances in a number of other form factors. Phones have been a target for the tech for a few years now. After all, it didn’t take COVID-19 to teach us that smartphones are mobile petri dishes we watch TikToks on. Products like CleanPhone from Canadian startup Glissner are looking to enter a space that’s been thus far dominated by PhoneSoap, which was genuinely ahead of the curve on the phenomenon.

Targus’s keyboard may well have been the most widely reported-on UV solution of the show, because, well, it’s a bit wacky, with an ultraviolet lamp that sits above it.

Masks are another piece of the puzzle that have slowly been infiltrating the show, but really hit a fever pitch this year. Obviously wearing a face mask in public is only a new phenomenon in some countries — in other parts of the world like East Asia it’s long been a normal part of life. Last year, Portland-based Ao Air grabbed some headlines with its own take on the category.

Razer’s Project Hazel was undoubtedly the most prominent mask to debut at the show. It’s big and flashy and a bit of a diversion for a company that primarily trades in gaming peripherals. The N95 mask sports LEDs to indicate charging status and make the wearer’s face visible in dark surroundings. There’s also technology built in to make the wearer’s voice clearer. For the moment, however, it’s hard to see them as much beyond a headline grabber.

One piece I genuinely expected to see more of was remote work. We caught glimpses, like the Dell monitor with Microsoft Teams conferencing built in. Microsoft pitched its new Surface as a remote work machine, but frankly, it didn’t feel any more targeted at that vertical than any other portable Surface.

No doubt many of the innovations companies are working on will have to wait until CES 2022. Fingers crossed, we’ll see them next year in Vegas.

Twitter’s decentralized future

By Lucas Matney

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Top Hat, a startup that digitizes textbooks and turns them into an interactive experience for college students, announced on Wednesday that it has acquired yet another business: Fountainhead Press. The acquisition marks Top Hat’s third scoop of a publishing company in the past 12 months.

Consolidation is going to be huge in the next few years for edtech, as bigger players raise enough financing (and gain profits) to be able to afford other businesses.

Top Hat’s whole business proposition is a subtweet to Zoom University: It wants to make learning an active, online experience and completely digital. That focus has let them reach 3.5 million students and thousands of universities. With a new acquisition, Top Hat is bringing more content into its fold, and with it, more customers who need a better solution to a dusty textbook.

I caught up with Top Hat CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to understand what has triggered this string of content acquisitions. While the M&A isn’t tech-focused, we can learn about how a well-funded edtech startup is navigating the early innings of 2021.

We’ll talk about the shift from offline to online, edtech’s consolidation environment and why the “sell to Pearson or bust” mindset might officially be out the door for the sector.

Offline to online

Facebook Can’t Fix What It Won’t Admit To

By Steven Levy
Plus: Zuckerberg’s community manifesto, how to hold platforms accountable, and an accidental admission in Congress.

Thimble teaches kids STEM skills with robotics kits combined with live Zoom classes

By Sarah Perez

Parents with kids stuck learning at home during the pandemic have had to look for alternative activities to promote the hands-on learning experiences kids are missing out on due to attending class virtually. The New York-based educational technology startup Thimble aims to help address this problem by offering a subscription service for STEM-based projects that allow kids to make robotics, electronics and other tech using a combination of kits shipped to the home and live online instruction.

Thimble began back in 2016 as a Kickstarter project when it raised $300,000 in 45 days to develop its STEM-based robotics and programming kits. The next year, it began selling its kits to schools, largely in New York, for use in the classroom or in after-school programs. Over the years that followed, Thimble scaled its customer base to include around 250 schools across New York, Pennsylvania and California, which would buy the kits and gain access to teacher training.

But the COVID-19 pandemic changed the course of Thimble’s business.

“A lot of schools were in panic mode. They were not sure what was happening, and so their spending was frozen for some time,” explains Thimble co-founder and CEO Oscar Pedroso, whose background is in education. “Even our top customers that I would call, they would just give [say], ‘hey, this is not a good time. We think we’re going to be closing schools down.”

Pedroso realized that the company would have to quickly pivot to begin selling directly to parents instead.

Image Credits: Thimble

Around April, it made the shift — effectively entering the B2C market for the first time.

The company today offers parents a subscription that allows them to receive up to 15 different STEM-focused project kits and a curriculum that includes live instruction from an educator. One kit is shipped out over the course of three months, though an accelerated program is available that ships with more frequency.

The first kit is basic electronics, where kids learn how to build simple circuits, like a doorbell, kitchen timer and a music composer, for example. The kit is designed so kids can experience “quick wins” to keep their attention and whet their appetite for more projects. This leads into future kits like those offering a Wi-Fi robot, a little drone, an LED compass that lights up and a synthesizer that lets kids become their own DJ.

Image Credits: Thimble

While any family can use the kits to help kids experience hands-on electronics and robotics, Pedroso says that about 70% of subscribers are those where the child already has a knack for doing these sorts of projects. The remaining 30% are those where the parents are looking to introduce the concepts of robotics and programming, to see if the kids show an interest. Around 40% of the students are girls.

The subscription is more expensive than some DIY projects at $59.99/per month (or $47.99/mo if paid annually), but this is because it includes live instruction in the form of weekly one-hour Zoom classes. Thimble has part-time employees who are not just able to teach the material, but can do so in a way that appeals to children — by being passionate, energetic and capable of jumping in to help if they sense a child is having an issue or getting frustrated. Two of the five teachers are women. One instructor is bilingual and teaches some classes in Spanish.

During class, one teacher instructs while a second helps moderate the chat room and answer the questions that kids ask.

The live classes will have around 15-20 students each, but Thimble additionally offers a package for small groups that reduces class size. These could be used by homeschool “pods” or other groups.

Image Credits: Thimble

“We started hearing from pods and then micro-schools,” notes Pedroso. “Those were parents who were connected to other parents, and wanted their kids to be part of the same class. They generally required a little bit more attention and wanted some things a little more customized,” he added.

These subscriptions are more expensive at $250/month, but the cost is shared among the group of parents, which brings the price down on per-household basis. Around 10% of the total customer base is on this plan, as most customers are individual families.

Thimble also works with several community programs and nonprofits in select markets that help to subsidize the cost of the kits to make the subscriptions more affordable. These are announced, as available, through schools, newsletters and other marketing efforts.

Since pivoting to subscriptions, Thimble has re-established a customer base and now has 1,110 paid customers. Some, however, are grandfathered in to an earlier price point, so Thimble needs to scale the business further.

In addition to Kickstarter, Thimble has raised funds and worked on the business over the year with the help of multiple accelerators, including LearnLaunch in Boston, Halcyon in D.C. and Telluride Venture Accelerator in Colorado.

The startup, co-founded by Joel Cilli in Pittsburgh, is now around 60% closed on its seed round of $1 million, but isn’t announcing details of that at this time.

 

 

 

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

By Alex Wilhelm

Yesterday, we spoke with Plaid CEO and co-founder Zach Perret after news broke that Visa no longer plans to buy his company for $5.3 billion.

The deal was heralded in early 2020 as a sign of the growing importance of fintech startups. Then it failed to close, eventually running into a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice. A few months later, the acquisition was dropped.

Sentiment in the market changed since the transaction was announced. As TechCrunch reported yesterday, there’s a good deal of optimism to be found amongst investors and others that Plaid will eventually be worth more than the price at which the Visa deal valued it.

What follows is a summary of our conversation with Perret, digging into a number of topics we felt most were pressing in the wake of Plaid’s unshackling.

Now what?

First and upfront: it does not appear that Plaid is racing to the public markets via a blank-check company, or SPAC, a question several readers asked on Twitter. Our impression from our chat regarding near-term liquidity via the public markets is that those with their hopes up have them up a few years too early.

TechCrunch asked Perret how it feels to be free from his erstwhile corporate boss.

He said that the last few years have been a “rollercoaster,” adding that when they made the choice to sell, it made sense at the time from mission, and delivery perspectives — Visa wanted to accomplish similar things and could give his company access to a wide network of potential customers.

Amazon’s Ring Neighbors app exposed users’ precise locations and home addresses

By Zack Whittaker

A security flaw in Ring’s Neighbors app was exposing the precise locations and home addresses of users who had posted to the app.

Ring, the video doorbell and home security startup acquired by Amazon for $1 billion, launched Neighbors in 2018 as a breakaway feature in its own standalone app. Neighbors is one of several neighborhood watch apps, like Nextdoor and Citizen, that lets users anonymously alert nearby residents to crime and public-safety issues.

While users’ posts are public, the app doesn’t display names or precise locations — though most include video taken by Ring doorbells and security cameras. The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app, including those who are reporting crimes.

But the exposed data wasn’t visible to anyone using the app. Rather, the bug was retrieving hidden data, including the user’s latitude and longitude and their home address, from Ring’s servers.

Another problem was that every post was tied to a unique number generated by the server that incremented by one each time a user created a new post. Although the number was hidden from view to the app user, the sequential post number made it easy to enumerate the location data from previous posts — even from users who aren’t geographically nearby.

Ring Neighbors app (left), and the data it was pulling in, including location data (right). (Image: TechCrunch)

The Neighbors app appeared to have about 4 million posts by the end of 2020.

Ring said it had fixed the issue.

“At Ring, we take customer privacy and security extremely seriously. We fixed this issue soon after we became aware of it. We have not identified any evidence of this information being accessed or used maliciously,” said Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri.

Ring currently faces a class-action suit by dozens of people who say they were subjected to death threats and racial slurs after their Ring smart cameras were hacked. In response to the hacks, Ring put much of the blame on users for not using “best practices” like two-factor authentication, which makes it harder for hackers to access a user’s account with the user’s password.

After it emerged that hackers were reportedly creating tools to break into Ring accounts and over 1,500 user account passwords were found on the dark web, Ring made two-factor authentication mandatory for every user.

The smart tech maker has also faced increasing criticism from civil rights groups and lawmakers for its cozy relationship with hundreds of U.S. police departments that have partnered with Ring for access to homeowners’ doorbell camera footage.

 

 

Upgrade launches checking accounts and debit cards

By Romain Dillet

Fintech startup Upgrade has been positioning itself as a neobank. And yet, the company has mostly been focused on personal loans and more recently credit cards. You couldn’t just replace your bank account with Upgrade. Upgrade is adding two important missing pieces of the puzzle with checking accounts and debit cards.

With today’s launch, Upgrade competes more directly with other challenger banks, such as Chime, N26 and others. You can open a checking account, control it from a mobile app, send and receive money from that account.

There are no monthly fees and no minimum account balance. Under the hood, Cross River Bank provides FDIC-insured checking accounts.

You also get a debit card with your checking account. When it comes to ATM withdrawals, Upgrade will reimburse ATM fees for its most loyal customers up to five times a month. You need to maintain a minimum balance or set up direct payroll deposit for that feature.

Debit card payments on subscriptions and common everyday expenses let you earn 2% cash back. Eligible purchases include convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, food deliveries, etc. Your earn 1% on other debit charges.

Rewards on debit card transactions are somewhat uncommon. Most financial companies focus on credit card rewards as the interchange fees on credit card transactions are much higher. Debit cards don’t generate as much interchange revenue.

“Neobanks in particular cannot pay high rewards (or any rewards at all) on debit cards because the interchange fee is often their only source of revenue,” Upgrade CEO Renaud Laplanche told me in an email.

And interchange fees can add up if you manage to attract millions of customers. According to The Information, Chime generated more than $600 million in revenue last year thanks to interchange fees.

The company still plans to generate the vast majority of its revenue from credit products. “Our strategy is to monetize our base through credit,” Laplanche said.

Upgrade also offers a credit card with 1.5% cash back on all purchases. If, for one reason or another, you can’t pay your monthly balance payment, the company helps you combine monthly charges into installment plans that you can pay back over 24 to 60 months. You pay down your balance at a fixed rate with equal monthly payments. Upgrade customers who use the company’s checking account will get lower rates on Upgrade loans.

You can also get a personal loan from Upgrade without a credit card or a checking account. And maybe you’ll end up discovering Upgrade’s other products after signing up to a personal loan.

Image Credits: Upgrade

Grab Financial Group raises $300 million Series A led by Hanhwa Asset Management

By Catherine Shu

Grab Financial Group said today it has raised more than $300 million in Series A funding, led by South Korean firm Hanhwa Asset Management, with participation from K3 Ventures, GGV Capital, Arbor Ventures and Flourish Ventures.

The Financial Times reports that the funding values Grab Financial, a subsidiary of ride-hailing and delivery giant Grab, at $3 billion. Both K3 Ventures and GGV Capital were early investors in Grab, which was founded in 2012.

Back in February 2020, Grab announced it had raised $856 million in funding to grow its payment and financial services. That news came during speculation that Grab and Gojek, one of it top rivals, were finally getting closer to a merger after lengthy discussions.

But the Grab-Gojek talks stalled, and Gojek is now reportedly in talks to merge with Indonesia e-commerce platform Tokopedia instead. According to Bloomberg, the combined company would be worth $18 billion, making it a more formidable rival to Grab.

In its funding announcement, Grab Financial Group said its total revenues grew more than 40% in 2020, compared to 2019. This driven by strong consumer adoption of services like AutoInvest, an investment platform that allows users to invest small amounts of money at a time through the Grab app and insurance products. Grab Financial announced the launch of several financial products for consumers and SMEs in August 2020.

Usagea of digital financial services by consumers and SMEs in Southeast Asia increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a report published by Google, Temasek and Bain & Company in November, usage of banking apps and online payments, remittances, insurance products and robo-advisor investment platforms all grew in 2020, and the region’s financial services market may be reach $60 billion in revenue by 2025.

A consortium between Grab-Singtel was also among several firms awarded a full digital-banking license by the Monetary Authority of Singapore in December 2020.

In a press statement, Hanhwa Asset Management chief executive officer Yong Hyun Kim said, “We expect GFG to continue its expontential growth on the back of an innovative business model which supports the changing broader lifestyle of consumers, as well as its highly synergistic relationship with Grab, the largest Southeast Asian unicorn.”

Adorable Fish Bots Get Schooled in How to Swarm

By Matt Simon
Meet Bluebot, a friendly swimming robot with big camera eyes. Put a few in a tank together and they’ll collaborate to complete surprisingly complex tasks.

Affirm doubles after starting to trade despite strong IPO pricing

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Today shares of Affirm, a buy-now-pay-later unicorn, started trading above $90 per share, far above its $49 per-share IPO price, a figure that was already miles above the company’s early expectations.

The pop comes after Affirm raised its pricing range earlier this week, to $41 to $44 per share, up from an initial range of $33 to $38 per share. To see the company double from its raised price implies strong demand for its shares, a thin float, or both.

Affirm’s explosive debut comes on the heels of similarly strong results from DoorDash, C3.ai and Airbnb. Those companies’ debuts were so strong that Roblox delayed its IPO, later swapping a traditional IPO for a direct listing to get around the pricing issue.

Today’s IPO shows that the same dynamics that were at play in those IPOs have persisted into 2021. More public debuts are expected in Q1, including Coinbase, another well-known unicorn. Other names like Robinhood, Bumble and others are in the wings.

Affirm’s first-day performance will certainly raise eyebrows from regular critics of the traditional IPO process. But the company did raise more money than it perhaps anticipated, and is having a raucous first-day’s trading, so it’s hard to fret too much for the company. If its share price is still as high in a month as it is today, perhaps it was as underpriced as some will claim.

Fintech

Affirm’s pricing brings a green splash to a busy week for fintech giants. Yesterday, Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid failed to go through due to regulatory concerns. While the fallen deal could have a chilling effect on fintech startups, Plaid told TechCrunch that it saw 60% customer growth in 2020, bringing it to more than 4,000 clients. Plaid’s next step, per many in the VC and tech community, will be even bigger than its once-planned $5.3 billion dollar exit.

Some tweets here to give you a sense of the momentum around fintech right now:

Imo, give a few years, they'll acquire Visa.

— Shani Majer (@ClicWill2) January 12, 2021

January of 2021 feels not very much different from January of 2020 for fintech

Funding rounds announced by Blend, Mx (Utah!), Modern Treasury, Relay Payments (Atlanta!), Rapyd Payments, Checkout, Curve, Rho, Reggora etc

Plaid news! Affirm IPO! Walmart-Ribbit!

— Sar Haribhakti (@sarthakgh) January 13, 2021

Crazy week in fintech, but it’s only Wednesday….
💔@Plaid / @Visa Breakup
🛒@Walmart getting into fintech
🛍@Affirm pricing at ~$15B
🌪@blendlabsinc raising $300m @ $3.3B
Ⓜ@mX raising $300m
🏃‍♂️@RapydPayments raising $300m @ $2.5B
🚛Relay Payments raising $43mm

— ashleypaston (@ashleypaston) January 13, 2021

Affirm’s pop and Plaid’s forward-looking attitude show that the exit market for fintech feels both optimistic and energetic.

❌