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Investors in LatAm get bitten by the hotel investment bug as Ayenda raises $8.7 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Some of Latin America’s leading venture capital investors are now backing hotel chains.

In fact, Ayenda, the largest hotel chain in Colombia, has raised $8.7 million in a new round of funding, according to the company.

Led by Kaszek Ventures, the round will support the continued expansion of Ayenda’s chain of hotels in Colombia and beyond. The hotel operator already has 150 hotels operating under its flag in Colombia and has recently expanded to Peru, according to a statement.

Financing came from Kaszek Ventures and strategic investors like Irelandia Aviation, Kairos, Altabix and BWG Ventures.

The company, which was founded in 2018, now has more than 4,500 rooms under its brand in Colombia and has become the biggest hotel chain in the country.

Investments in brick and mortar chains by venture firms are far more common in emerging markets than they are in North America. The investment in Ayenda mirrors big bets that SoftBank Group has made in the Indian hotel chain Oyo and an investment made by Tencent, Sequoia China, Baidu Capital and Goldman Sachs, in LvYue Group late last year, amounting to “several hundred million dollars”, according to a company statement.

“We’re seeking to invest in companies that are redefining the big industries and we found Ayenda, a team that is changing the hotel’s industry in an unprecedented way for the region”, said Nicolas Berman, Kaszek Ventures partner.

Ayenda works with independent hotels through a franchise system to help them increase their occupancy and services. The hotels have to apply to be part of the chain and go through an up to 30-day inspection process before they’re approved to open for business.

“With a broad supply of hotels with the best cost-benefit relationship, guests can travel more frequently, accelerating the economy,” says Declan Ryan, managing partner at Irelandia Aviation.

The company hopes to have more than 1 million guests in 2020 in their hotels. Rooms list at $20 per-night, including amenities and an around the clock customer support team.

Oyo’s story may be a cautionary tale for companies looking at expanding via venture investment for hotel chains. The once high-flying company has been the subject of some scathing criticism. As we wrote:

The New York Times  published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank  Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

Equity is not always the answer

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week was a fun combination of early-stage and late-stage news, with companies as young as seed stage and as old as PE-worthy joining our list of topics.

Danny and Alex were back on hand to chat once again. Just in case you missed it, they had some fun talking Tesla yesterday, and there are new Equity videos on YouTube. Enjoy!

Here’s what the team argued about this week:

  • HungryPanda raises $20 million from 83North and Felix Capital. With a focus on Chinese food, Chinese language users and Chinese payment options like Alipay, it’s a neat play. According to TechCrunch, the service is live in 31 cities in the U.K., Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S and is targeting $200 million in GMV by early Summer.
  • The Org raises $8.5 million, ChartHop raises $5 million. Hailing from two different product perspectives, these two org chart-focused companies both raised capital Thursday morning. That made them interesting to Alex as they formed yet another startup cluster, and Danny was transfixed by their differing starting points as businesses, positing that they will possibly move closer to each other over time.
  • DigitalOcean’s $100 million debt raise. The round — an addition of capital to a nearly profitable, SMB-focused cloud infra provider — split our hosts, with one leaning more toward a PE-exit and the other an IPO. Whether it can drive margins in the smaller-spend cloud customer segment will be critical to watch in the coming months.
  • (For more on venture debt writ large, head here.)
  • And finally, the E-Trade sale to Morgan Stanley, and what it might mean for Robinhood’s valuation. As Danny points out, the startup has found a good business in selling the order flow of its customers. Alex weighed in that the company has more revenue scaling to do before it grows into its last private valuation. So long as the market stays good, however, Robinhood is probably in good shape.

Equity is nearly three years old, and we have some neat stuff coming up that you haven’t heard about yet. Stay tuned, and thank you for sticking with us for so long.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Where top VCs are investing in manufacturing and warehouse robotics

By Arman Tabatabai

Robotics and automation tools are now foundational parts of warehouses and manufacturing facilities around the world. Unlike many other robotics and AI use cases, the technology has moved well beyond the theoretical into practice and is used by small suppliers and large companies like Amazon and Walmart.

There’s no doubt that automation will transform every step of the supply chain, from manufacturing to fulfillment to shipping and logistics. The only question is how long such a revolution will take.

There’s still plenty of market left to transform and lots of room for new players to redefine different verticals, even with many of the existing leaders having already staked their claim. Naturally, VCs are plenty eager to invest millions in the technology. In 2019 alone, manufacturing, machinery and automation saw roughly 800-900 venture-backed fundraising rounds, according to data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, close to two-thirds of which were still early-stage (pre-seed to Series B) investments.

With our 2020 Robotics+AI sessions event less than two weeks away, we’ve decided to perform temperature checks across some of the hottest robotics sub-verticals to see which trends are coming down the pipe and where checks are actually being written. Just as we did with construction robotics last week, this time, we asked six leading VCs who actively invest in manufacturing automation robotics to share what’s exciting them most and where they see opportunities in the sector:

Rohit Sharma, True Ventures

Which trends are you most excited about in manufacturing/warehouse automation robotics from an investing perspective?

Gaming-focused investment firm Bitkraft closes in on at least $140 million for its second fund

By Jonathan Shieber

Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.

For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.

Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.

The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.

Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.

While at Goldman, Baier-Lentz worked on the $67 billion Dell acquisition of EMC and the $34 billion acquisition of RedHat by IBM.

The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.

As Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners told TechCrunch last year:

“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”

Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.

For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”

Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz

Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them. 

“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”

It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.

Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.

In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.

“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”

SpaceX alumni are helping build LA’s startup ecosystem

By Jonathan Shieber

During the days when Snapchat’s popularity was booming, investors thought the company would become the anchor for a new Los Angeles technology scene.

Snapchat, they hoped, would spin-off entrepreneurs and angel investors who would reinvest in the local ecosystem and create new companies that would in turn foster more wealth, establishing LA as a hub for tech talent and venture dollars on par with New York and Boston.

In the ensuing years, Los Angeles and its entrepreneurial talent pool has captured more attention from local and national investors, but it’s not Snap that’s been the source for the next generation of local founders. Instead, several former SpaceX employees have launched a raft of new companies, capturing the imagination and dollars of some of the biggest names in venture capital.

“There was a buzz, but it doesn’t quite have the depth of bench of people that investors wanted it to become,” says one longtime VC based in the City of Angels. “It was a company in LA more than it was an LA company.” 

Perhaps the most successful SpaceX offshoot is Relativity Space, founded by Jordan Noone and Tim Ellis. Since Noone, a former SpaceX engineer, and Ellis, a former Blue Origin engineer, founded their company, the business has been (forgive the expression) a rocket ship. Over the past four years, Relativity href="https://techcrunch.com/2019/10/01/relativity-a-new-star-in-the-space-race-raises-160-million-for-its-3-d-printed-rockets/"> has raised $185.7 million, received special dispensations from NASA to test its rockets at a facility in Alabama, will launch vehicles from Cape Canaveral and has signed up an early customer in Momentus, which provides satellite tug services in orbit.

The rise of the winged pink unicorn

By Walter Thompson
Claire Diaz-Ortiz Contributor
Claire Diaz-Ortiz is an angel investor and bestselling author of nine books that have been published in more than a dozen countries. An early employee at Twitter, she was called “The Woman Who Got the Pope on Twitter” by Wired and holds an MBA and other degrees from Stanford and Oxford.

Like most investors, I am a little too obsessed with unicorns.

But not just the Silicon Valley kind. As the mother of a five-year-old daughter, my interests also veer in a pink, sparkly direction. So it should not be all that surprising that I recently found myself in a dusty corner of the internet where die-hard unicorn fans go to spread their wings.

It was there, deep in the My Little Pony forums, that one question stopped me in my tracks: “is a male alicorn possible in the future?1

An alicorn, for those uninitiated to the mythological particulars, is the rare winged, female version of a traditional unicorn.

My Little Pony popularized the term, and the fan forum on which user “Green Precision” asked his question back in 2015 had some interesting answers to the particulars of this philosophical dilemma.

Shadow Stallion responded immediately, “I don’t think a male Alicorn will be possible in the future. Not because its [sic] not wanted or because its [sic] not genetically possible…but generally when male characters are introduced to a show where female characters are prominent, things get ugly.”

Malinter posited, “they probably do but given the female-to-male ratio of Equestria2 they are probably exceptionally rare. The real problem for a male alicorn is not that they exist but where is their place in the world? …Our male alicorn has some pretty big hoof prints to fill in while at the same time not make a trainwreck of established lore.”

Wind Chaser went straight from unconscious bias to conscious bias in their response: “aesthetically a male alicorn just wouldn’t look right, because their bodies are already naturally larger than females, thus the wings would cause an imbalance to the design.”

But it wasn’t all bad news.

“Until it’s proven otherwise, it’s safe to say that something like a male alicorn is possible,” responded Geek0zoid. Crysahis agreed. “Overall yes, I believe there could be a male alicorn it may just take a while to actually happen!”

It doesn’t take a PhD in philosophy from Stanford or the one lone female investing partner at Sequoia3 to posit that these same conversations were probably happening all over Sandhill Road in December of 2009, as male VCs discussed whether female unicorns could actually happen4.

As we move into 2020, though, we’re about to see a pink, winged stampede.

Just look at the recent trends. In 2019, more female-funded unicorns were born than ever before.5 And things are only looking up. (I’m looking at you, ClassPass!)

Public opinion agrees. Alongside TruePublic, where I am an advisor and angel investor, I ran a study asking if people believed we would see more female-led unicorns in the 2020s.6 At the time of this article, 68% of the 6,500 respondents said they believed we would see more, with 30% of women responding “many more” (as opposed to only 16% of men). Only 4% of women, but 9% of men, responded “no, not a chance.”7

Kaben Clauson, founder and CEO, says “to represent Gen Z, Millennials and Gen X, TruePublic needs a weighted sample of roughly one thousand Americans to represent that population of the USA.” This particular study already has 6,500 respondents, making it statistically significant.

In fact, female-founded and female co-founded companies are actually over-indexing for unicorn status despite a lack of investment dollars.

Shelby Porges, co-founder of The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, explains: “Recent tracking has shown that female-founded companies represent 4% of all unicorns. That’s astonishing considering that in the past couple of years, they have gotten only slightly more than 2% of all venture funding.” Porges, whose group has mobilized more than 80 venture funds to pledge to invest over a billion dollars into women-founded companies, continues, “It demonstrates why we say, ‘when you invest in women, you’re in good company.’ ”

Here are the three reasons I believe a herd of winged female unicorns (OK, alicorns) is coming down the pipeline in the 2020s:

1. Women invest in women at 3x the rate of men

New data reveals that women invest in women at nearly three times the rate that men do and with the (slow) rise in the number of female investing partners at VCV firms, we are poised to see more and more gender-balanced founding teams getting funding.8 Like one male GP at one of the world’s top VC funds said to me when discussing one of the few female partners at his firm, “she always brings us parenting companies.” It might be cringe-worthy if TechCrunch hadn’t declared 2020 “a big year for online childcare” and that same female partner weren’t about to make a big chunk of cash thanks to all the upcoming parenting alicorns she was smartly funding.

Sophia Bendz, a partner at Atomico who also leads the Atomico Angel Program, said, “I’m confident we’ll see more female unicorns in the next decade because there’s a growing wave of ambitious female founders building incredible products and services. There are also more women in VC now and I’ve seen first-hand the impact having female investment partners can have on increasing the amount of investment into female-led companies. The data shows that women invest in women at three times the rate as male investment partners.”

My study at TruePublic coincided with these findings. When asked if a female investor was more likely to invest in a female entrepreneur, 64% of people responded affirmatively (64% of these individuals were women and 63% were men).9

Jomayra Herrera agrees. An investor at Cowboy Ventures (which thanks to Aileen Lee coined the term “unicorn” in the first place), and a volunteer with AllRaise, a nonprofit promoting women in VC, she says: “As the venture industry continues to diversify, especially as it relates to gender and race/ethnicity, I am optimistic that we will see more female-led and people of color-led unicorns over the next decade. We know that diverse teams not only function better, but they are able to see areas of opportunities that more homogenous teams might miss. I think the next generation of investors are more likely to question conventional wisdom, forms of pattern recognition that may lead to bias, and other structural barriers that have historically left out promising entrepreneurs.”

Camila Farani is a well-known investor in Brazil. As founder of G2 Capital, former president of Gavea Angels and a personality on Brazil’s “Shark Tank,” she says “having diverse points of view at the table makes the decision clearer and more certain. People who think differently than you and have other visions of the market, sometimes can show you what you can’t see by yourself.”

She also reminds us not to forget the impact that angel investors can have. “The investments market is still made up mostly of men, but this landscape is changing gradually. It is interesting to see that angel investing is being the most common choice for women who want to make their first investments.”

This trend of investing more in women isn’t just limited to female investors. Susana Robles has spent two decades leading the charge to invest in women in Latin America and alongside Marta Cruz of NXTP Labs is co-founder of WeXchange, a platform that connects women entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean with mentors and investors.

As Robles says, “I think the world is finally waking up to the fact that there is serious research proving that startups with women co-founders win in all aspects: profitability, as well as greater social and environmental awareness. Investors should want to have this triple win.” She continues, “women tend to return money to investors faster than men, and at the same time, they obtain higher returns. Women are in charge of 64% of all global purchasing decisions on products and services, so having women on C-level positions increases the chance that a startup [will] be highly attractive to a massive market and become a unicorn.”

It also extends to the LPs in the funds. “I also think many investors in funds (mostly DFIs [development finance institutions] but not exclusively) have become more vocal in stating that they don’t want any more to invest in teams led by an all-white, all-male cast who choose startups with all-white, all-male founders.” Jennifer Neundorfer is the co-founder of Jane VC and an investor in Kinside, a parenting app that just raised a $3 million seed round. When describing her fund’s rationale for focusing on female founders, she drops the mic: “we’re going to invest in an under-looked asset class that is overperforming.” Boom.

2. Female founders are creating new billion-dollar markets

Another reason we’ll see more female-founded “alicorns” in the 2020s has everything to do with the new markets that female founders are creating. Hunter Walk of Homebrew was one of the initial seed investors in Winnie, an online marketplace for childcare that recently raised a $9 million Series A. At the time, he saw something that others investors didn’t. Winnie co-founder Sara Mauskopf explains, “Four years ago when we started Winnie, parenting and especially child care were not hot investment areas. This has been changing. It certainly helps that more investors are women and are in the thick of their child-bearing and rearing years.”

Part of what Walk says he recognized was the clear founder-market fit displayed by Mauskopf and her co-founder Annie Halsall. As Mauskopf says, “With Winnie, we saw an opportunity to solve the child-care crisis that other founders either did not recognize or did not care to solve. While everyone else was starting crypto and scooter companies, we were building the first-ever tech platform for $57 billion child care industry. Lack of access to quality child care disproportionately impacts women, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it took a female led team to capitalize on this opportunity.” Expanding on the concept of founder-market fit, Walk says, “I love to come away thinking, these are the absolute right founders to build this business.”10

Bendz, the Atomico partner who specializes in femtech and is also an avid angel investor, agrees. “Often I meet founders that you can tell are at the right place at the right time with the right mindset and the right team. It’s almost like all of the experiences they have had prior to launching a company have been preparing them to create that business at that time. These are the kind of founders who I know are in it for the long haul, and who are going to weather the ups and downs.” As a woman who uses the products and services she invests in, Bendz is also an example of investor-market fit, which I believe will open new markets in the decades to come.

Something else investors like Walk and Bendz believe in? Outsized opportunities. And the potential for outsized opportunities are especially ripe in untapped markets. The rise of femtech is yet another example of how the intuitive success of the concept of founder-market fit ultimately needed more female founders for certain markets to blossom. As Bendz explains, “Throughout a woman’s life there are many big events that have a big impact on our overall health — from childbirth to menopause. I know all women are tired of poor or non-existent solutions for women surrounding those life events, and that’s why we are seeing so many companies launching to better serve women’s needs. When you think about the fact that women have only had the right to vote and educate themselves for 100 years, it’s mind-blowing how long the world was operating with only 50% of the population in control. That’s reflected in the products and services we as a society have funded.”

Women’s consumer products are another area. Ornella Moraes is one of four female co-founders of Brazilian-led Sousmile, which recently raised a $6 million USD Series A led by Kaszek Ventures. “Our brand is a woman,” Moraes says of her dental beauty startup that retails throughout São Paulo. And so are the leaders of the company. At Sousmile, there are four female co-founders and two male co-founders. “More dentists in the world are women than men, so it’s been critical for our team to have more female founders,” she says. In this way, the rise of female founders and co-founders can completely change markets. “We believe this will fundamentally create a different type of product,” says Walk.

3. Emerging markets will take the lead

Finally, certain emerging markets pose a particular opportunity for female founders by over-indexing for both large IPOs and female founders. 2017 was the first year that more of the largest IPOs in the internet sector globally came from emerging markets. Nazar Yasin, founder of Rise Capital, which invests in emerging markets, says “This trend isn’t going away.” After all, most GDP growth comes from emerging markets, where most global internet users live. As he explains, “the future of market capitalization growth in the internet sector globally belongs to emerging markets.” And yet this type of innovation takes resilience. “If you’re a startup in one of these markets, it’s like trying to grow a plant in the desert.”11 In an environment that demands more daily resilience, there is a different appetite for risk and innovation. (I call this resilience innovation.)

Perhaps the easiest example of emerging market innovation fueled by resilience is fintech. Emerging markets and their often unstable economies boast a much higher number of frustratingly unbanked individuals. This brings about innovation. Hanna Schiuma, the Brazilian-born fintech founder of ElasBank, where I am an angel investor and advisor, explains how ubiquitous such fintech innovation is becoming.

“Soon all finance will be tailor-made and fintech will be common ground because all financial services will be technology-intensive.” She also argues that the nature of such an innovation allows the industry to become more innovative, and thus inclusive, which is exactly what is happening with her own women’s bank, launching in 2020. “That means great opportunities to better serve women’s financial needs to offer dedicated products, and to gather female talent to build those products from a diverse and innovative perspective.” Ultimately, “resilience is key for us to build that pool of talent and open the doors for gender balance and financial inclusion.”

Furthermore, data shows Africa and Latin America both beat global averages for percentages of startup female founders. Laura Stebbing is co-CEO of accelerateHER, a global community of leaders addressing the under-representation of women in tech through action. Raised in Southern Africa, Stebbing is passionate about Africa’s rise as a hub of female entrepreneurship.

“Africa has both the highest proportion of women founders at 26% [Latam comes in second]12 and a $42 billion funding gap. There’s clearly no lack of talent across Africa’s 54 countries, so for the investors, corporate executives, policy makers and established founders that aren’t moved by the moral arguments for gender parity, notice the enormous business opportunity. We will start to see a higher volume of resilient, scalable companies emerge as leaders build more diverse networks and ecosystems that support women to unlock their entrepreneurial potential.” Nathan Lustig, founder of Magma Partners, a VC firm in Latin America which invests in female founders above the regional average, explains, “investing in and empowering resilient women entrepreneurs is just good business, and is one of the biggest investment opportunities, especially in emerging markets.”

I believe Latin American can have an edge. I am a Silicon Valley-born investor now living in “Silicon Aires,” where I have been thrilled to see exciting numbers of female founders in Latin America. Susana Robles agrees, and says the reason is in part due to the nature of a committed ecosystem to support one another. “It’s the sheer need that forces you to collaborate.” An ecosystem like Silicon Valley doesn’t have the same need to do so. Of Latin America, Robles says, “In 10 years, we will have created a much more collaborative market than the developed ones.” And that collaboration is leading to great female founders. 2019, in fact, saw more funding going to female co-founders in Latin America than in Europe or the USA.13

This will lead to future alicorns. Ann Williams, COO of Creditas, a Brazilian fintech currently closing in on its own unicorn status, says “the conversion funnel for unicorns works just like any other selection process. We fill the top with a bunch of great women in supporting roles in emerging market startups, these women take their experiences and found rocking new companies. A percentage of these will convert to scaleups raising Series C and D rounds with valuations at $1 billion or higher. And voila! we get women-led unicorns.” She continues, “the odds are with us and I am sure the talent is too!”

Juliane Butty, startup head at Platzi and former regional manager of Seedstars, one of the leading accelerators and investors fostering female entrepreneurship in emerging markets, joins Williams. “We have definitely seen the rise of female founders and investors in emerging markets in the last decade. One supports the other. And we know that success breeds success.”

Perhaps My Little Pony fan Malinter said it best when he suggested how a male version of the alicorn could finally emerge in such a female-dominated space: “The simplest way they could probably add one in would be to make said alicorn the ruler of a neighboring nation.” In the same way, emerging markets may just hold the key for female unicorns.

No matter the region, Robles says “if we keep opening doors to women entrepreneurs who are as ambitious as men in growing their companies, we’ll begin to see many more unicorns with gender diversified teams.” Hanna Schiuma, the Elasbank founder who just might be building the next female-founded unicorn, agrees. “The alicorns are coming. And we’re ready to fly.”


2Equestria is of course where the My Little Ponies and their assorted unicorns, alicorns and friends all live.
3Go Jess Lee!
4Yes, Aileen Lee of Cowboy VC first invented the term in her 2013 TechCrunch piece, but we’re in a unicorn-fueled time machine, people.
8“Do Female Investors Support Female Entrepreneurs? An Empirical Analysis of Angel Investor Behavior,” Seth C. Oranburg, Duquesne University School of Law, Pittsburgh PA, USA and Mark Geiger, Duquesne University School of Business, Pittsburgh PA, USA
12Forthcoming research from TechCrunch/Crunchbase
13Forthcoming research from TechCrunch/Crunchbase

Leanplum raises another $27M, shakes up its executive ranks

By Frederic Lardinois

Customer engagement platform Leanplum today announced that it has raised a $27 million extension to its 2017 $47 million Series D round. This additional funding was led by previous investors Norwest Venture Partners and Shasta Ventures. Kleiner Perkins, Canaan and Launchub also participated in this round, which the company says it will use to bolster its product development and go-to-market efforts. With this, Leanplum has now raised a total of $125 million.

Maybe just as importantly, Leanplum also announced a major shakeup of its executive ranks. The company appointed George Garrick as President and CEO, and Sheri Huston as chief financial officer. Co-founder and former CEO Momchil Kyukchiev will step into the chief product officer role.

Garrick brings a wealth of experience with him, having been the CEO of companies like Flycast, Placeware, Wine.com and Tapjoy . Huston, too, comes into the role with a lot of industry experience as the former CFO at Comscore and LiquiBox. The company is also adding Dynamic Signal founder Russ Fradin to its Board of Directors.

The company describes the changes in its executive ranks as a ‘transition.’

“Many if not most startups at some point in their growth realize that a management transition makes sense as the requirements for the CEO evolve from starting and proving a company, to running and scaling it,” Garrick told us in a statement. “Leanplum’s board and founders agreed that such a transition would be appropriate as Leanplum accelerates its growth phase.”

This was echoed by Kyurkchiev: “George is the right leader for Leanplum. His strong management experience with companies at our stage and in our domain will be essential for Leanplum as we continue to drive growth and expand globally.”

Leanplum says about 2 billion people used apps and websites that use its services in 2019.

As for the new funding, the company says it was simply easier to extend its Series D, which has the same investors as the original D round. “The board felt it was easier and more appropriate to just extend the D round rather than move into the next letter. Also, we wanted to minimize ‘letter creep,’ Garrick said.

 

These specialized Africa VC funds are welcoming co-investors

By Jake Bright

For global venture capitalists still on the fence about entering Africa, a first move could be co-investing with a proven fund that’s already working in the region.

Africa’s startup scene is performance-light — one major IPO and a handful of exits — but there could be greater returns for investors who get in early. For funds from Silicon Valley to Tokyo, building a portfolio and experience on the continent with those who already have expertise could be the best start.

VC in Africa

Africa has one of the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world, as ranked by startup origination and year-over-year increases in VC spending. There’s been a mass mobilization of capital toward African startups around a basic continent-wide value proposition for tech.

Significant economic growth and reform in the continent’s major commercial hubs of Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Ethiopia is driving the formalization of a number of informal sectors, such as logistics, finance, retail and mobility. Demographically, Africa has one of the world’s fastest-growing youth populations, and continues to register the fastest global growth in smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Africa is becoming a startup continent with thousands of entrepreneurs and ventures who have descended on every problem and opportunity.

Codecademy has already outlived many rivals — is that enough?

By Connie Loizos

Codeacademy, the New York-based online interactive platform that offers coding classes in a wide variety of programming languages, is a little like background noise; it’s been operating reliably since founder Zach Sims created the company while still a Columbia University student in 2011. It’s a brand that people know and that millions have used, but because it has grown steadily, without headline-making funding rounds — or, conversely, newsworthy layoffs —  the 90-person company doesn’t routinely attract a lot of press attention.

That’s fine with Sims, who we spoke with last week following the most recent bout of bad publicity for Lambda School, a younger rival that has raised $48 million from investors, compared with the $42.5 million that Codecademy has raised over time. Sims says his company is continuing to chug along nicely.

The question, increasingly, is whether that’s ‘nice’ enough for VCs. Indeed, Codecademy — like a lot of startups right now — is in the awkward position of being a smart, solid, steadily but not massively growing business — which raises questions about its next steps.

The last time we’d spoken with Sims, roughly two years ago, Codecademy — which struggled for years with how to produce meaningful revenue —  had recently launched two premium products. One of these, Codecademy Pro, helps users who are willing to spend $40 per month (or $240 per year) to learn the fundamentals of coding, as well as develop a deeper knowledge in up to 10 areas, including machine learning and data analysis. Sims says this has taken off, though he declined to share specifics.

A second offering, Codecademy Pro Intensive, that was designed to immerse learners from six to 10 weeks in either website development, programming or data science, has since been dropped.

Who are the company’s paid users? Sims says they tend to fall into one of two buckets: those who are learning a discrete skill set, perhaps to build a website in a pinch, and those who are gainfully employed but looking to climb the ladder or switch jobs and who see Codeacademy as a way to spend a couple of hours a week to develop the skills to get there. Roughly 60 percent  are based in the U.S.; the rest are elsewhere, including in India and Brazil. (The need for coding skills “isn’t a U.S.-only phenomenon,” Sims notes.)

Sims suggests the payback on investment can be fairly quick, given Codecademy’s pricing. By way of comparison, some on-premise coding schools charge upwards of $20,000 a year — a big enough expense that in order to make themselves more accessible, they invite students to pay nothing upfront and instead collect a percentage of their salary once they find a job.

Naturally, because Codecademy largely lives online, so do occasional criticisms about its perceived shortcomings. One customer — a self-described computer science major — authored a thoughtful review in December, writing that “being a programmer is more than simply being able to memorize syntax.” While Codecademy has introduced “thousands to the fundamentals of computer science,” through “addictive bite-sized pieces that are easy to accomplish,” this person wrote that it falls short in helping cultivate a “coders’ mindset.”

Either way, enough people are finding value in Codecademy’s vast number of offerings that it recently reached an important milestone —  it’s now cash-flow positive — having doubled it revenue last year.

Sims is understandably proud of this accomplishment, noting that “there are few [coding platforms] that are growing sustainably and profitably and generating cash that can be invested back into the business.”

Codecademy is enjoying the same tailwinds it has from the start, too. Though skepticism has grown around coding schools more broadly, the ability to design, shape, correct, and secure software will only grow more valuable. Receiving a related education that comes affordably remains an appealing proposition.

It’s a case the company is continuing to make for consumers and, we gather, more enterprises that are starting to offer Codecademy type classes to employees. Though Codecademy already sells classes in volume packs, Sims suggests that a big push in 2020 will involve tie-ups with companies that want to provide what it teaches as a perk.

Whether it intends to paint a picture for investors, too, is less clear. ( Sims declined to answer when we asked about fundraising more broadly.)

Certainly, follow-on rounds are growing harder to land, as described in our piece last week about “portfolio bloat.” The reason: VCs have raised so much money in recent years that they’re funneling it into new startups faster than ever. (They need to find the Next Big Thing to return all that capital.)

That’s leaving a lot of more steadily growing companies to fend for themselves for now.

What the end result will be is an open question. Codecademy’s cash-flow positive status gives it more time to wait on an answer.

Canadian online pharmacy, PocketPills has raised $7.35 million as it expands into Quebec

By Jonathan Shieber

PocketPills, which bills itself as the sole online pharmacy operating in Canada, has raised $7.35 million in new financing as it expands across the country.

Through partnerships with insurers like Pacific Blue Cross the company provides co-insurance reductions for prescriptions. “We have an option for you to come and join our platform just like any pharmacy,” says company co-founder and chief operating officer, Harj Samra.

Samra launched the company in 2018 with Raj Gulia, a fellow proprietor of pharmacies across Canada, and the serial entrepreneur and co-founder of RocketFuel Abhinav Gupta. After RocketFuel’s public offering, Gupta was toying with several ideas for direct to consumer companies when he was approached by Gulia and Samra.

Together the three men launched PocketPills to bring the online pharmacy model to Canada as a way to save money for insurers.

The problem for insurers is that the use of generic drugs in Canada lags behind that of the U.S., says Gupta. “The difference is quite substantial. The U.S is about 90% generic fill rate and in Canada that number is at 70%,” he says. 

PocketPills covers everything that a regular Canadian pharmacy would outside of controlled substances and narcotics. The bulk of the company’s prescriptions to date are for medications for chronic conditions.

Now the company is looking to expand across the country, opening fulfillment locations in Nova Scotia and soon in Quebec.

To back that growth and continue its development, PocketPills turned to a large Canadian family office and the investment firm Waterbridge to finance its $7.35 million round.  

“PocketPills is timed well for massive value creation in the Canadian health care industry through its technology innovations. It has captured a sweet spot at the intersection of cost (insurers and employers), convenience (patients) and care (chronic diseases),” said Manish Kheterpal, Managing Partner, WaterBridge Ventures, in a statement.

 

Ex-YC partner Daniel Gross rethinks the accelerator

By Lucas Matney

Amid skyrocketing operating expenses, remote work has become an obsession for Bay Area founders looking to have it both ways, accessing Silicon Valley’s networks of capital and opportunity without paying steep premiums for talent.

Daniel Gross has a deeper understanding than most of Silicon Valley’s opportunities. The Jerusalem native was one of Y Combinator’s early successes, joining with an AI startup that, at 23, he sold to Apple (we reported the deal was between $40-60 million). Gross served as a director of machine learning at Apple before returning to YC — this time as a partner.

At age 28, his role at YC behind him, Gross is now working to revamp the startup accelerator model for a remote future with his startup Pioneer. He’s received backing from Marc Andreessen and Stripe to build a program he hopes can give founders access to funding streams and talent networks that are nearly impossible to find outside Silicon Valley.

“In the way software is eating the world, remote is almost eating earth in the sense that it may very well be the way large companies are created, but also perhaps the way that venture funding takes place,” Gross told TechCrunch in an interview. “With Pioneer, the product experiment we’re running is an attempt to build a San Francisco or Mountain View — to build a city on the internet.”

GettyImages 604311102

Marc Andreessen, one of Pioneer’s early investors.

That lofty goal has required quite a bit of tinkering on Gross’s part over the past 18 months since he launched the startup. During that time, he’s shifted the program’s structure from a Reddit-like online contest to win cash grants to what he calls a “fully remote startup generator” that can help remote founders create companies that later apply to Y Combinator or raise money from Pioneer.

“People were really taking advantage of Pioneer as kind of an online accelerator almost organically,” Gross says. “We decided to kind of operationalize that inside and focus more on funding people that are working on things that will turn into companies and potentially offer them more funding.”

Pioneer has already backed more than 100 founders, who have created solutions like remote team product There, desktop app generator ToDesktop and software search engine Metacode.

Pioneer is hoping their efforts can provide opportunities to founders in underserved geographies and regions, but like other investors in Silicon Valley, the startup hasn’t been backing nearly as many female founders as their male counterparts. From funded entrepreneurs publicly announced on Pioneer’s blog, less than 15 percent are women.

“Pioneer is an engine for finding, funding and mentoring underrated people, many of whom I suspect are female. Our minds are constantly spinning on ways to raise awareness amongst female founders and we’re working with our community to improve female representation,” Gross wrote in an email response. “The world could stand to have many more founders like Mathilde Collin (of Front) and Laura Behrens Wu (of Shippo), and we are eager to find them.”

One of Pioneer’s livestream discussions during its remote program.

Pioneer’s existence is partially the result of an advent of remote work and communication tools, but another real enabler is the competitive market for early stage investing. Mega VC funds are competing over pre-seed deals for the buzziest startups and Y Combinator’s batch sizes are ballooning, leaving little room for accelerators with similar pitches. As the world of early stage startup investing gets more crowded, investors are having to get creative. For Gross and his investors, Pioneer also represents an opportunity to scout deal flow earlier in the pipeline.

Gross has a weighty portfolio of his own angel investments including GitHub, Figma, Uber, Gusto, Notion, Opendoor, Cruise Automation and Coinbase.

An earlier structure gave Pioneer the right to invest up to $100K in startups emerging from the program if they went onto raise, but just 30% of grant awardees went on to found companies, Gross tells me. In its 2.0 form, Pioneer wants participants to give up 1% of their company to join the one-month remote program. The accelerator won’t give them cash but will help founders incorporate their startups, give them guidance via a network of experts, and toss some other substantial perks like $100K worth of cloud credits and a roundtrip ticket to San Francisco to inject a bit of face-to-face time into the process.

Greatly enjoyed the first Pioneer (@pioneerdotapp) Summit! pic.twitter.com/fIvdA24Kdf

— Patrick Collison (@patrickc) October 26, 2019

The biggest evolution is the more formalized investment structure for founders exiting the program. If Pioneer is excited about the progress of a particular startup, they may give it the option to raise directly from Pioneer upon completion, sticking it in one of three investment buckets and investing between $20K and $1 million.

Gross acknowledges that Pioneer will largely be making bets closer to the $20K mark as the accelerator scales its portfolio. Pioneer is relying an undisclosed amount of early funding from Gross, Andreessen and Stripe for both its investments and operating expenses. Gross says that the company has additional funding sources lined up to facilitate some of these larger investments, but that he’s reticent to raise too much too early. “This being my second rodeo, I’m well aware of the downsides of over-capitalizing and so I think we’re going to remain nimble and frugal,” Gross says.

Gross isn’t looking to replace Y Combinator, and realizes that for founders with plenty of options, Pioneer’s investments might not be the most enticing. Y Combinator invest $150K in startups for a 7% slice of equity, by comparison, a $20K investment from Pioneer will cost founders 5% of their company plus the 1% they gave up to join the accelerator in the first place. Nevertheless, Gross hopes that plenty of founders sitting on great ideas will want to take advantage of this deal.

“I think there are a lot of great companies that instead of being listed on the S&P 500 are stuck at the phase where they’re just a Python script.”

VCs to antitrust officials: We’d rather take our chances

By Connie Loizos

Last week at Stanford, antitrust officials from the U.S. Department of Justice organized a day-long conference that engaged numerous venture capitalists in conversations about big tech. The DOJ wanted to hear from VCs about whether they believe there’s still an opportunity for startups to flourish alongside the likes of Facebook and Google and whether they can anticipate what — if anything — might disrupt the inexorable growth of these giants.

Most of the invited panelists acknowledged there is a problem, but they also said fairly uniformly that they doubted if more regulation was the solution.

Some of the speakers dismissed outright the idea that today’s tech incumbents can’t be outmaneuvered. Sequoia’s Michael Moritz talked about various companies that ruled the world across different decades and later receded into the background, suggesting that we merely need to wait and see which startups will eventually displace today’s giants.

He added that if there’s a real threat lurking anywhere, it isn’t in an overly powerful Google, but rather American high schools that are, according to Moritz, a poor match for their Chinese counterparts. “We’re killing ourselves; we’re killing the future technologists… we’re slowly killing the potential for home-brewed invention.”

Renowned angel investor Ram Shriram similarly downplayed the DOJ’s concerns, saying specifically he didn’t think that “search” as a category could never be again disrupted or that it doesn’t benefit from network effects. He observed that Google itself disrupted numerous search companies when it emerged on the scene in 1998.

Somewhat cynically, we would note that those companies — Lycos, Yahoo, Excite — had a roughly four-year lead over Google at the time, and Google has been massively dominant for nearly all of those 22 years since (because of, yes, its network effects).

Expanding its women’s health benefits offerings for employers, Maven raises $45 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Over the past twelve months, Maven, the benefits provider focused on women’s health and family planning, has expanded its customer base to include over 100 companies and grown its telehealth services to include 1,700 providers across 20 specialties — for services like shipping breast milk, finding a doula and egg freezing, fertility treatments, surrogacy and adoption.

The New York-based company which offers its healthcare services to individuals, health plans, and employers has now raised an additional $45 million to expand its offerings even further.

Its new money comes from a clutch of celebrity investors like Mindy Kaling, Natalie Portman, and Reese Witherspoon and institutional investors led by Icon Ventures and return backers Sequoia Capital, Oak HC/FT, Spring Mountain Capital, Female Founders Fund and Harmony Partners. Anne Wojcicki, the founder of 23andMe, is also an investor in the company.

Maven is addressing critical gaps in care by offering the largest digital health network of women’s and family health providers,” said Tom Mawhinney, lead investor from Icon Ventures, who will join the Maven board of directors, in a statement. “With its virtual care and services, Maven is changing how global employers support working families by focusing on improving maternal outcomes, reducing medical costs, retaining more women in the workplace, and ultimately supporting every pathway to parenthood.”

In the six years since founder Katherine Ryder first launched Mayven, the company has raised more than $77 million for its service and become a mother of two boys.

“You go through this enormous life experience; it’s hugely transformative to have a child,” she told TechCrunch after announcing the company’s $27 million Series B round, led by Sequoia. “You do it when your careers is moving up — they call it the rush hour of life — and with no one supporting you on the other end, it’s easy to say ‘screw it, I’m going home to my family’ … If someone leaves the workforce, that’s fine, it’s their choice but they shouldn’t feel forced to because they don’t have support.”

Some of Maven’s partners include Snap and Bumble to provide employees access to its women’s and family health provider network. The company connects users with OB-GYNs, pediatricians, therapists, career coaches and other services around family planning.

Announcing the final agenda for Robotics + AI — March 3 at UC Berkeley

By Richard Smith

TechCrunch is returning to U.C. Berkeley on March 3 to bring together some of the most influential minds in robotics and artificial intelligence. Each year we strive to bring together a cross-section of big companies and exciting new startups, along with top researchers, VCs and thinkers.

In addition to a main stage that includes the likes of Amazon’s Tye Brady, U .C. Berkeley’s Stuart Russell, Anca Dragan of Waymo, Claire Delaunay of NVIDIA, James Kuffner of Toyota’s TRI-AD, and a surprise interview with Disney Imagineers, we’ll also be offering a more intimate Q&A stage featuring speakers from SoftBank Robotics, Samsung, Sony’s Innovation Fund, Qualcomm, NVIDIA and more.

Alongside a selection of handpicked demos, we’ll also be showcasing the winners from our first-ever pitch-off competition for early-stage robotics companies. You won’t get a better look at exciting new robotics technologies than that. Tickets for the event are still available. We’ll see you in a couple of weeks at Zellerbach Hall.

Agenda

8:30 AM – 4:00 PM

Registration Open Hours

General Attendees can pick up their badges starting at 8:30 am at Lower Sproul Plaza located in front of Zellerbach Hall. We close registration at 4:00 pm.

10:00 AM – 10:05 AM

Welcome and Introduction from Matthew Panzarino (TechCrunch) and Randy Katz (UC Berkeley)

10:05 AM – 10:25 AM

Saving Humanity from AI with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

The UC Berkeley professor and AI authority argues in his acclaimed new book, “Human Compatible,” that AI will doom humanity unless technologists fundamentally reform how they build AI algorithms.

10:25 AM – 10:45 AM

Engineering for the Red Planet with Lucy Condakchian (Maxar Technologies)

Maxar Technologies has been involved with U.S. space efforts for decades, and is about to send its sixth (!) robotic arm to Mars aboard NASA’s Mars 2020 rover. Lucy Condakchian is general manager of robotics at Maxar and will speak to the difficulty and exhilaration of designing robotics for use in the harsh environments of space and other planets.

10:45 AM – 11:05 AM

Automating Amazon with Tye Brady (Amazon Robotics)

Amazon Robotics’ chief technology officer will discuss how the company is using the latest in robotics and AI to optimize its massive logistics. He’ll also discuss the future of warehouse automation and how humans and robots share a work space. 

11:05 AM – 11:15 AM

Live Demo from the Stanford Robotics Club 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM

Book signing with Stuart Russell (UC Berkeley)

Join one of the foremost experts in artificial intelligence as he signs copies of his acclaimed new book, Human Compatible.

11:35 AM – 12:05 PM

Building the Robots that Build with Daniel Blank (Toggle Industries), Tessa Lau (Dusty Robotics), Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics) and Brian Ringley (Boston Dynamics)

Can robots help us build structures faster, smarter and cheaper? Built Robotics makes a self-driving excavator. Toggle is developing a new fabrication of rebar for reinforced concrete, Dusty builds robot-powered tools and longtime robotics pioneers Boston Dynamics have recently joined the construction space. We’ll talk with the founders and experts from these companies to learn how and when robots will become a part of the construction crew.

12:15 PM – 1:00 PM

Q&A: Corporate VC, Partnering and Acquisitions with Kass Dawson (SoftBank Robotics America), Carlos Kokron (Qualcomm Ventures), and Gen Tsuchikawa (Sony Innovation Fund)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with three of the top minds in corporate VC.

1:00 PM – 1:25 PM

Pitch-off 

Select, early-stage companies, hand-picked by TechCrunch editors, will take the stage and have five minutes to present their wares.

1:15 PM – 2:00 PM

Q&A: Founding Robotics Companies with Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) and Noah Ready-Campbell (Built Robotics)

Your chance to ask questions of some of the most successful robotics founders on our stage

1:25 PM – 1:50 PM

Investing in Robotics and AI: Lessons from the Industry’s VCs with Dror Berman (Innovation Endeavors), Kelly Chen (DCVC) and Eric Migicovsky (Y Combinator)

Leading investors will discuss the rising tide of venture capital funding in robotics and AI. The investors bring a combination of early-stage investing and corporate venture capital expertise, sharing a fondness for the wild world of robotics and AI investing.

1:50 PM – 2:15 PM

Facilitating Human-Robot Interaction with Mike Dooley (Labrador Systems) and Clara Vu (Veo Robotics)

As robots become an ever more meaningful part of our lives, interactions with humans are increasingly inevitable. These experts will discuss the broad implications of HRI in the workplace and home.

2:15 PM – 2:40 PM

Toward a Driverless Future with Anca Dragan (UC Berkeley/Waymo), Jinnah Hosein (Aurora) and Jur van den Berg (Ike)

Autonomous driving is set to be one of the biggest categories for robotics and AI. But there are plenty of roadblocks standing in its way. Experts will discuss how we get there from here. 

2:15 PM – 3:00 PM

Q&A: Investing in Robotics Startups with Rob Coneybeer (Shasta Ventures), Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta Venture Partners) and Aaron Jacobson (New Enterprise Associates)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest investors in robotics and AI

2:40 PM – 3:10 PM

Disney Robotics

Imagineers from Disney will present start of the art robotics built to populate its theme parks.

3:10 PM – 3:35 PM

Bringing Robots to Life with Max Bajracharya and James Kuffner (Toyota Research Institute Advanced Development)

This summer’s Tokyo Olympics will be a huge proving ground for Toyota’s TRI-AD. Executive James Kuffner and Max Bajracharya will join us to discuss the department’s plans for assistive robots and self-driving cars.

3:15 PM – 4:00 PM

Q&A: Building Robotics Platforms with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA) and Steve Macenski (Samsung Research America)

Join this interactive Q&A session on the breakout stage with some of the greatest engineers in robotics and AI.

3:35 PM – 4:00 PM

The Next Century of Robo-Exoticism with Abigail De Kosnik (UC Berkeley), David Ewing Duncan, Ken Goldberg (UC Berkeley), and Mark Pauline (Survival Research Labs)

In 1920, Karl Capek coined the term “robot” in a play about mechanical workers organizing a rebellion to defeat their human overlords. One hundred years later, in the context of increasing inequality and xenophobia, the panelists will discuss cultural views of robots in the context of “Robo-Exoticism,” which exaggerates both negative and positive attributes and reinforces old fears, fantasies and stereotypes.

4:00 PM – 4:10 PM 

Live Demo from Somatic

4:10 PM – 4:35 PM

Opening the Black Box with Explainable AI with Trevor Darrell (UC Berkeley), Krishna Gade (Fiddler Labs) and Karen Myers (SRI International)

Machine learning and AI models can be found in nearly every aspect of society today, but their inner workings are often as much a mystery to their creators as to those who use them. UC Berkeley’s Trevor Darrell, Krishna Gade of Fiddler Labs and Karen Myers from SRI will discuss what we’re doing about it and what still needs to be done.

4:35 PM – 5:00 PM 

Cultivating Intelligence in Agricultural Robots with Lewis Anderson (Traptic), Sebastian Boyer (FarmWise) and Michael Norcia (Pyka)

The benefits of robotics in agriculture are undeniable, yet at the same time only getting started. Lewis Anderson (Traptic) and Sebastien Boyer (FarmWise) will compare notes on the rigors of developing industrial-grade robots that both pick crops and weed fields respectively, and Pyka’s Michael Norcia will discuss taking flight over those fields with an autonomous crop-spraying drone.

5:00 PM – 5:25 PM

Fostering the Next Generation of Robotics Startups with Claire Delaunay (NVIDIA), Scott Phoenix (Vicarious) and Joshua Wilson (Freedom Robotics

Robotics and AI are the future of many or most industries, but the barrier of entry is still difficult to surmount for many startups. Speakers will discuss the challenges of serving robotics startups and companies that require robotics labor, from bootstrapped startups to large scale enterprises.

5:30 PM – 7:30 PM

Unofficial After Party, (Cash Bar Only) 

Come hang out at the unofficial After Party at Tap Haus, 2518 Durant Ave, Ste C, Berkeley

Final Tickets Available

We only have so much space in Zellerbach Hall and tickets are selling out fast. Grab your General Admission Ticket right now for $350 and save 50 bucks as prices go up at the door.

Student tickets are just $50 and can be purchased here. Student tickets are limited.

Startup Exhibitor Packages are sold out!

Founders Fund confirms $3 billion in new capital across two funds

By Jonathan Shieber

Founders Fund, the investment firm led by its controversial co-founder Peter Thiel and partners Keith Rabois and Brian Singerman, has closed on $3 billion in new capital across two investment funds, TechCrunch confirmed.

News of the firm’s latest fundraising close was first reported in Axios.

The firm’s $1.2 billion Founders Fund VII closed in December and follows on the heels of a $1.3 billion Fund VI, which closed in 2016. The firm’s first growth fund, which raked in $1.5 billion, closed on Monday as well, according to a spokesperson for the investment firm. An additional $300 million in commitments is coming from the firm’s partnership to round out the $3 billion figure.

Fundraising for the new investment vehicles was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last October. And it follows the reunion earlier in 2019 of Rabois and Thiel — two of the most notorious members of the “PayPal mafia” that’s produced a number of billionaire entrepreneurs and investors.

The speed with which Founders Fund has been able to raise new capital is matched by the firm’s alacrity in deploying new dollars, according to industry watchers. Rabois in particular has made a splash at Founders Fund since joining the firm — investing large sums in competitive rounds, investors said.

But the firm’s success in fundraising is likely due to the returns it has been able to reap for its limited partners. For its 2011-vintage fund four, Founders Fund has more than quadrupled every dollar that the fund committed, to $4.60, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (thanks to investments in Airbnb and Stripe Inc.). That figure compares favorably to the industry average of $2.11. Meanwhile, the firm’s third fund saw its returns increase to $3.80, 75 cents more than the industry average.

Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister described how the firm’s investment practices differ from other venture capital investors in a wide-ranging interview with TechCrunch last year:

As for how decisions get made, Banister explained that the voting structure is dependent on the size of the check. “So you’d meet with one or two or three or four partners, depending on your [investing] stage,” she told attendees. Because she’s looking at very early-stage startups, for example, she doesn’t have to meet with many people to make a decision. As “dollar amounts gets larger,” she continued, “you’re looking at full GP oversight,” including the involvement of senior members like Brian Singerman and Keith Rabois, and “that can a little more difficult.”

At Axios, Dan Primack reported that the growth fund would write checks of $100 million at least. The firm’s investment decisions would be structured with any two investment team members agreeing to back deals under $1.5 million. Any deal above $1.5 million requires approval from one partner and a general partner; deals above $5 million require one partner and two general partners; and deals above $10 million require approvals from two partners and the unanimous approval of Singerman, Thiel and Rabois. Any deal requiring the approval of the general partners means that the startup that is pitching has to at least talk on the phone or meet in person with the general partners.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the firm’s Fund VII was $1.2 billion and its Growth Fund was $1.5 billion. 

SentinelOne raises $200M at a $1.1B valuation to expand its AI-based endpoint security platform

By Ingrid Lunden

As cybercrime continues to evolve and expand, a startup that is building a business focused on endpoint security has raised a big round of funding. SentinelOne — which provides a machine learning-based solution for monitoring and securing laptops, phones, containerised applications and the many other devices and services connected to a network — has picked up $200 million, a Series E round of funding that it says catapults its valuation to $1.1 billion.

The funding is notable not just for its size but for its velocity: it comes just eight months after SentinelOne announced a Series D of $120 million, which at the time valued the company around $500 million. In other words, the company has more than doubled its valuation in less than a year — a sign of the cybersecurity times.

This latest round is being led by Insight Partners, with Tiger Global Management, Qualcomm Ventures LLC, Vista Public Strategies of Vista Equity Partners, Third Point Ventures, and other undisclosed previous investors all participating.

Tomer Weingarten, CEO and co-founder of the company, said in an interview that while this round gives SentinelOne the flexibility to remain in “startup” mode (privately funded) for some time — especially since it came so quickly on the heels of the previous large round — an IPO “would be the next logical step” for the company. “But we’re not in any rush,” he added. “We have one to two years of growth left as a private company.”

While cybercrime is proving to be a very expensive business (or very lucrative, I guess, depending on which side of the equation you sit on), it has also meant that the market for cybersecurity has significantly expanded.

Endpoint security, the area where SentinelOne concentrates its efforts, last year was estimated to be around an $8 billion market, and analysts project that it could be worth as much as $18.4 billion by 2024.

Driving it is the single biggest trend that has changed the world of work in the last decade. Everyone — whether a road warrior or a desk-based administrator or strategist, a contractor or full-time employee, a front-line sales assistant or back-end engineer or executive — is now connected to the company network, often with more than one device. And that’s before you consider the various other “endpoints” that might be connected to a network, including machines, containers and more. The result is a spaghetti of a problem. One survey from LogMeIn, disconcertingly, even found that some 30% of IT managers couldn’t identify just how many endpoints they managed.

“The proliferation of devices and the expanding network are the biggest issues today,” said Weingarten. “The landscape is expanding and it is getting very hard to monitor not just what your network looks like but what your attackers are looking for.”

This is where an AI-based solution like SentinelOne’s comes into play. The company has roots in the Israeli cyberintelligence community but is based out of Mountain View, and its platform is built around the idea of working automatically not just to detect endpoints and their vulnerabilities, but to apply behavioral models, and various modes of protection, detection and response in one go — in a product that it calls its Singularity Platform that works across the entire edge of the network.

“We are seeing more automated and real-time attacks that themselves are using more machine learning,” Weingarten said. “That translates to the fact that you need defence that moves in real time as with as much automation as possible.”

SentinelOne is by no means the only company working in the space of endpoint protection. Others in the space include Microsoft, CrowdStrike, Kaspersky, McAfee, Symantec and many others.

But nonetheless, its product has seen strong uptake to date. It currently has some 3,500 customers, including three of the biggest companies in the world, and “hundreds” from the global 2,000 enterprises, with what it says has been 113% year-on-year new bookings growth, revenue growth of 104% year-on-year, and 150% growth year-on-year in transactions over $2 million. It has 500 employees today and plans to hire up to 700 by the end of this year.

One of the key differentiators is the focus on using AI, and using it at scale to help mitigate an increasingly complex threat landscape, to take endpoint security to the next level.

“Competition in the endpoint market has cleared with a select few exhibiting the necessary vision and technology to flourish in an increasingly volatile threat landscape,” said Teddie Wardi, MD of Insight Partners, in a statement. “As evidenced by our ongoing financial commitment to SentinelOne along with the resources of Insight Onsite, our business strategy and ScaleUp division, we are confident that SentinelOne has an enormous opportunity to be a market leader in the cybersecurity space.”

Weingarten said that SentinelOne “gets approached every year” to be acquired, although he didn’t name any names. Nevertheless, that also points to the bigger consolidation trend that will be interesting to watch as the company grows. SentinelOne has never made an acquisition to date, but it’s hard to ignore that, as the company to expand its products and features, that it might tap into the wider market to bring in other kinds of technology into its stack.

“There are definitely a lot of security companies out there,” Weingarten noted. “Those that serve a very specific market are the targets for consolidation.”

Talking cybersecurity, SaaS and early-stage valuations with ForgePoint Capital

By Alex Wilhelm

Earlier today TechCrunch covered the launch of a new, $450 million cybersecurity-focused fund, the second from venture group ForgePoint Capital.

The new vehicle, inventively named Fund II, will mostly focus on early-stage companies in the cybersecurity space. The fund’s timing is somewhat unsurprising. As we noted in our earlier coverage, the recent IPOs of Cloudflare (more here) and CrowdStrike (more here) have given cybsersecurity a halo, showing founders and investors alike that outsize returns are possible in the space. Such successes can’t hurt VCs looking for fresh capital.

To get a stronger grip on how ForgePoint sees the market, TechCrunch corresponded with the group, asking about fund mechanics (check sizes, investing pace), the cybersecurity sector itself (business models, valuations) and recent liquidity events (CrowdStrike in particular). ForgePoint’s Alberto Yépez, a co-founder and managing director at the group, answered our questions.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Let’s have some fun:

TechCrunch: The new fund is $150 million larger than its predecessor. Why raise 50% more for the new vehicle? What is the target number of checks per year? Will it be faster than the preceding fund?

ForgePoint Capital: We were one of the first investors to focus on cybersecurity when we raised our first fund. Since then, the cybersecurity market has grown by more than 50%, driven by the constantly evolving challenges facing businesses, governments and individuals. We’ve also doubled our investment team. Our team has a singular focus on the market, driving unparalleled domain expertise and insights into emerging industry trends.

We will continue to invest in six to ten new cybersecurity companies per year, and find great opportunities with leading entrepreneurs.

Putting capital to work in “early-stage and select growth companies” is delightfully flexible. What check size range is the fund targeting, and what is the target deal size for growth-oriented deals?

We target up to $25 million for early-stage ventures throughout the life of an investment, and up to $50 million for growth-oriented companies achieving considerable revenue growth.

How much did Crowdstrike’s successful IPO boost cybersecurity-focused startup valuations and fundraising last year?

A rising tide lifts all boats. In cybersecurity, as elsewhere, the market rewards rapid growth and valuations reflect [that]. We target companies with great teams building innovative solutions that are poised for high growth. While the Crowdstrike IPO certainly boosted attention on the market, over 90% of successful cybersecurity exits are through M&A. Strategic buyers and financial sponsors pay up for companies that can scale.

India’s Swiggy raises $113M led by Prosus

By Manish Singh

Weeks after Zomato acquired Uber’s food delivery business in India, its chief local rival is bulking up some ammunition of its own.

Swiggy, India’s largest food delivery startup, announced on Wednesday it has raised $113 million as part of its Series I financing round. Prosus Ventures, the biggest venture capital for food delivery startups, led the round.

Meituan Dianping and Wellington Management Company also participated. The new round values Swiggy at about $3.6 billion, only slightly above its $3.3 billion valuation from the previous round, a source familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. The startup has raised about $1.57 billion to date.

Sriharsha Majety, co-founder and chief executive of Swiggy, said the startup will use the fresh capital to invest in “new lines of business” such as cloud kitchens and delivery beyond food items, and get on a “sustainable path to profitability.”

Prosus Ventures, formerly known as Naspers Ventures and Food, first wrote a check to Swiggy three years ago. Since then, it has become its biggest investor — having pumped in more than $700 million alone in the startup’s $1 billion financing round in December 2018.

“Swiggy continues to exhibit strong execution and a steadfast commitment to delivering the best service to consumers and has one of the best operational teams in food delivery globally. We are confident Swiggy will continue on a path to earn a significant place in the daily lives of Indians,” said Larry Illg, chief executive of Prosus Ventures and Food, in a statement.

The Bangalore-headquartered firm, which is operational in 520 cities, said it has witnessed a 2.5x growth in the volume of transactions in the past year. Its restaurant partners base has also grown to 160,000 and more than 10,000 are joining the platform each month.

Some analysts say that it will be very challenging for Swiggy and Zomato, both of which are spending over $20 million a month to win customers, to reach profitability.

Unlike in the developed markets like the U.S., where the order value of each delivery is about $33, in India, a similar item carries the price tag of $4.

Anand Lunia, a VC at India Quotient, said in a recent podcast that the food delivery firms have little choice but to keep subsidizing the cost of food items on their platform as otherwise most of their customers can’t afford to get their lunch and dinner from them.

The exit of Uber from India’s food delivery space has, however, made the market a duopoly play, so investors remain bullish. At stake is a $4.2 billion opportunity, according to research firm Redseer. But Zomato, which raised $150 million earlier this year, and Swiggy have alone picked up more than $2.1 billion from the market already.

Fintech VC sets records in Q4 despite early-stage slowdown

By Alex Wilhelm

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Fintech is what you hear about constantly, but probably aren’t as read up on as you’d like to be. Neither am I.

Luckily we have a new report concerning fintech investing to unpack and explore. Thanks to a dataset from startup and venture data provider CB Insights, we have a fresh, deep look into the world of startup fintech investment. 

Here’s what we want to know:

  • Did fintech venture activity rise in 2019?
  • How are the various venture stages of fintech investing performing
  • Are early-stage fintech startups able to attract capital at similar velocity to their much-lauded, late-stage counterparts?

Let’s find out!

2019: A (near) record

BluBracket scores $6.5M seed to help secure code in distributed environments

By Ron Miller

BluBracket, a new security startup from the folks who brought you Vera, came out of stealth today and announced a $6.5 million seed investment. Unusual Ventures led the round with participation by Point72 Ventures, SignalFire and Firebolt Ventures.

The company was launched by Ajay Arora and Prakash Linga, who until last year were CEO and CTO respectively at Vera, a security company that helps companies secure documents by having the security profile follow the document wherever it goes.

Arora says he and Linga are entrepreneurs at heart and they were itching to start something new after more than five years at Vera. While Arora still sits on the Vera board, they decided to attack a new problem.

He says that the idea for BluBracket actually came out of conversations with Vera customers, who wanted something similar to Vera, except to protect code.”About 18-24 months ago, we started hearing from our customers, who were saying, ‘Hey you guys secure documents and files. What’s becoming really important for us is to be able to share code. Do you guys secure source code?'”

That was not a problem Vera was suited to solve, but it was a light bulb moment for Arora and Linga, who saw an opportunity and decided to seize it. Recognizing the way development teams operated has changed, they started BluBracket and developed a pair of products to handle the unique set of problems associated with a distributed set of developers working out of a Git repository — whether that’s GitHub, GitLab or BitBucket.

The first product is BluBracket CodeInsight, which is an auditing tool, available starting today. This tool gives companies full visibility into who has withdrawn the code from the Git repository. “Once they have a repo, and then developers clone it, we can help them understand what clones exist on what devices, what third parties have their code, and even be able to search open source projects for code that might have been pushed into open source. So we’re creating what’s called a we call it a blueprint of where an enterprise code is,” Arora explained.

The second tool, BluBracket CodeSecure, which won’t be available until later in the year, is how you secure that code including the ability to classify code by level importance. Code tagged with the highest level of importance will have special status and companies can attach rules to it like that it can’t be distributed to an open source folder without explicit permission.

They believe the combination of these tools will enable companies to maintain control over the code, even in a distributed system. Arora says they have taken care to make sure that the system provides the needed security layer without affecting the operation of the continuous delivery pipeline.

“When you’re compiling or when you’re going from development to staging to production, in those cases because the code is sitting in Git, and the code itself has not been modified, BluBracket won’t break the chain,” he explained. If you tried to distribute special code outside the system, you might get a message that this requires authorization, depending on how the tags have been configured.

This is very early days for BluBracket, but the company takes its first steps as a startup this week as it emerges from stealth at the RSA security conference in San Francisco. It will be participating in the RSA Sandbox competition for early security startups at the conference, as well.

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