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A16z doesn’t invest, it manifests

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

Natasha and Danny and Alex and Grace were all here to chat through the week’s biggest tech happenings. In very good Show News™, Chris is back! He’s working on the next iteration of the show, something that you will be able to see starting Very Soon. Get hype!

Today though, we had a delectable dish of dynamic doings, namely news items of the following persuasion:

And that’s our show! We are back early Monday morning for a packed week. So keep your podcast app warm, we’re coming for it.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Creating a prediction machine for the financial markets

By Walter Thompson
Fayze Bouaouid Contributor
Fayze Bouaouid is co-founder and CEO of financial intelligence application Springbox AI. He has a Master's of Science in Banking and Finance and nearly two decades of experience in banking and asset management.

Artificial intelligence and machine-learning technologies have evolved a lot over the past decade and have been useful to many people and businesses, especially in the realm of finance, banking, investment and trading.

In these industries, there are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.

The AI tools being built by humans today are becoming another level more robust in their ability to predict trends, provide complex analysis, and execute automations faster and cheaper than humans. However, there has not been an AI-powered machine built yet that can trade on its own.

There are many activities that machines can perform better and faster than humans, such as calculations and financial reporting, as long as the machines are given the complete data.

Even if it was possible to train such a system that could replace human judgment, there would still be a margin of error, as well as some things that are only understandable by human beings. Humans are still ultimately responsible for the design of AI-based prediction machines, and progress can only happen with their input.

Data is the backbone of any prediction machine

Building an AI-based prediction machine initially requires an understanding of the problem being solved and the requirements of the user. After that, it’s important to select the machine-learning technique that will be implemented, based on what the machine will do.

There are three techniques: supervised learning (learning from examples), unsupervised learning (learning to identify common patterns), and reinforcement learning (learning based on the concept of gamification).

After the technique is identified, it’s time to implement a machine-learning model. For “time series forecasting” — which involves making predictions about the future — long short-term memory (LSTM) with sequence to sequence (Seq2Seq) models can be used.

LSTM networks are especially suited to making predictions based on a series of data points indexed in time order. Even simple convolutional neural networks, applicable to image and video recognition, or recurrent neural networks, applicable to handwriting and speech recognition, can be used.

Math learning app Photomath raises $23 million as it reaches 220 million downloads

By Romain Dillet

Photomath, the popular mobile app that helps you solve equations, has raised a $23 million Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures. The app is a massive consumer success, and chances are you might already know about it if you have a teenager in your household.

The app lets you point your phone’s camera at a math problem. It recognizes what’s written and gives you a step-by-step explanation to solve the problem. You might think that it’s the perfect app for lazy students.

But there are many different use cases for Photomath. For instance, you can write an equation in your notebook and use Photomath to draw a graph.

Typing an equation on a keyboard is quite difficult. That’s why bridging the gap between the physical world and your smartphone is key to Photomath’s success. You can just grab a pen and write something down on a piece of paper. Essentially, it’s an AR calculator.

GSV Ventures, Learn Capital, Cherubic Ventures and Goodwater Capital are also participating in today’s funding round.

Behind the app’s success, there’s an interesting story. Photomath was originally designed as a demo app for another company called MicroBlink. At the time, the team was working on text recognition technology. It planned to sell its core technology to other companies that might find it useful.

In 2014, they pitched MicroBlink at TechCrunch Disrupt in London. And things changed drastically overnight as Photomath reached the first spot of the iOS App Store.

Photomath has now attracted over 220 million downloads. As of this writing, it is still #59 in the U.S. App Store, one rank above Tinder. Other companies tried to build competitors, but it seems like they didn’t manage to crush the tiny European startup.

The app seems even more relevant as many kids are spending more time studying at home. They can’t simply raise their hand to call the teacher for some help.

Photomath is free and users can optionally pay for Photomath Plus, a premium version with more features, such as dynamic illustrations and animated tutorials.

Anthony Lin named permanent managing director and head of Intel Capital

By Ron Miller

When Wendell Brooks stepped down as managing partner and head of Intel Capital last August, Anthony Lin was named to replace him on an interim basis. At the time, it wasn’t clear if he would be given the role permanently, but today, six months later, the answer is known.

In a letter to the firm’s portfolio CEOs published on the company website, Lin mentioned, almost casually, that he had taken on the two roles on a permanent basis. “Personally, I want to share that I have been appointed to managing partner and head of Intel Capital. I have been a member of the investment committee for the past several years and am humbly awed by the talent of our entrepreneurs and our team,” he wrote.

Lin takes over in a time of turmoil for Intel as the company struggles to regain its place in the semiconductor business that it dominated for decades. Meanwhile, Intel itself has a new CEO with Pat Gelsinger returning in January from VMware to lead the organization.

As the corporate investment arm of Intel, it looks for companies that can help the parent company understand where to invest resources in the future. If that is its goal, perhaps it hasn’t done a great job, as Intel has lost some of its edge when it comes to innovation.

Lin, who was formerly head of mergers and acquisitions and international investing at the firm, can use the power of the firm’s investment dollars to try to help point the parent company in the right direction and help find new ways to build innovative solutions on the Intel platform.

Lin acknowledged how challenging 2020 was for everyone, and his company was no exception, but the firm invested in 75 startups, including 35 new deals and 40 deals involving companies in which it had previously invested. It has also made a commitment to invest in companies with more diverse founders. To that end, 30% of new venture-stage dollars went to startups led by diverse leaders, according to Lin.

What’s more, the company made a five-year commitment that 15% of all its deals would go to companies with Black founders. It made some progress toward that goal, but there is still a ways to go. “At the end of 2020, 9% of our new venture deals and 15% of our venture dollars committed were in companies led by Black founders. We know there is more progress to be made and we will continue to encourage, foster and invest in diverse and inclusive teams,” he wrote.

Lin faces a big challenge ahead as he takes over a role that had the same leader for the first 28 years in Arvind Sodhani. His predecessor, Brooks, was there for five years. Now it passes to Lin, and he needs to use the firm’s investment might to help Gelsinger advance the goals of the broader firm, while making sound investments.

Check out the incredible speakers joining us on Extra Crunch Live in March

By Jordan Crook

Extra Crunch Live is off to a kick-ass start this year. Lightspeed’s Gaurav Gupta and Grafana’s Raj Dutt taught us how to nail the narrative. Felicis Ventures’ Aydin Senkut and Guideline’s Kevin Busque showed us how valuable a simple pitch deck can be. And just yesterday, Accel’s Steve Loughlin and Ironclad’s Jason Boehmig discussed the challenges of pricing and packaging your product. Next week, we’ll sit down with Bain Capital Ventures’ Matt Harris and Justworks’ Isaac Oats.

For those of you who followed the series last year, Extra Crunch Live is a brand new beast in 2021: we take a look at early stage funding deals through the eyes of the founders and investors who made them happen, and those same tech leaders go through your pitch decks and give feedback and advice. Every single Wednesday at 12 p.m. PST/3 p.m. EST!

Extra Crunch Live is available for EC members only. It is but one of the many reasons to join Extra Crunch, including but not limited to Investor Surveys, Market Maps, and the EC Perks Program. Interested? Hit up this link to get started.

Today, I’m thrilled to announce the March slate for Extra Crunch Live. (Registration info for these events is at the bottom of the post.)


Sarah Kunst (Cleo Capital) + Julia Collins (Planet FWD)

March 10, 12pm PT/3pm ET

Julia Collins built a unicorn in the form of Zume, a robotics-focused pizza startup. Her latest venture, Planet FWD, has raised $2.7 million for climate-friendly food. Sarah Kunst, managing director of Cleo Capital invested in the round, adding Planet FWD to a portfolio that includes mmhmm, Lunch Club, StyleSeat and more. Hear why they chose one another, what matters most in the relationship between an investor and a founder, and get their live feedback on audience-submitted pitch decks.


Emmalyn Shaw (Flourish Ventures) + Adam Roseman (Steady)

March 17, 12pm PT/3pm ET

Emmalyn Shaw co-manages a $500 million fintech fund in Flourish Capital, with portfolio companies that include Brigit, Chime, Clerkie, Cushion, EarnUp, Kin, Propel, and SeedFi. She also led the Series A deal for Steady, founded by Adam Roseman, back in 2018. Hear from Emmalyn and Adam about how they came together, what it takes to get funding and be successful in the fintech space, and get their live feedback on audience-submitted pitch decks.


Navin Chaddha (Mayfield) + Manish Chandra (Poshmark)

March 24, 12pm PT/3pm ET

Poshmark raised upwards of $150 million before filing to go public in 2019. Today, it has a market cap north of $5 billion. Mayfield’s Navin Chaddha led the company’s Series A all the way back in 2011, back when Poshmark was called Gosh Posh. Hear Chaddha and Poshmark founder Manish Chandra discuss a decade of growth, and walk us through how they came together more than ten years ago. Then the duo will take a look at pitch decks submitted by audience members.


As a reminder, Extra Crunch Live is available for EC members only. It is but one of the many reasons to join Extra Crunch, including but not limited to Investor Surveys, Market Maps, and the EC Perks Program. Interested? Hit up this link to get started.

Register for the March episodes of Extra Crunch Live below.

See you there!

Volta Energy Technologies raises over $90M of a targeted $150M fund to back energy storage startups

By Jonathan Shieber

Volta Energy Technologies, the energy investment and advisory services firm backed by some of the biggest names in energy and energy storage materials, has closed on nearly $90 million of a targeted $150 million investment fund, according to people familiar with the group’s plans.

The venture investment vehicle compliments an $180 million existing commitment from Volta’s four corporate backers — Equinor, Albermarle, Epsilon, and Hanon Systems — and comes at a time when interest in energy storage technologies couldn’t be stronger. 

As the transition away from internal combustion engines and hydrocarbon fuels begins in earnest companies are scrambling to drive down costs and improve performance of battery technologies that will be necessary to power millions of electric cars and store massive amounts of renewable energy that still needs to be developed.

“Capital markets have noticed the enormity of the opportunity in transitioning away from carbon,” said Jeff Chamberlain, Volta’s founder and chief executive.

Born of an idea that that began in 2012 when Chamberlain began talking with the head of the Department of Energy under the Obama Administration back in 2014. What began when Chamberlain was at Argonne National Lab leading the development of JCESR, the lead lab in the US government’s battery research consortium, evolved into Volta Energy as Chamberlain pitched a private sector investment partner that could leverage the best research from National Laboratories and the work being done by private industry to find the best technology.

Support for the Volta project remained strong through both public and private institutions, according to Chamberlain. Even under the Trump Administration, Volta’s initiative was able to thrive and wrangle some of the biggest names in the chemicals, utility, oil and gas and industrial thermal management to invest in a $180 million fund that could be evergreen, Chamberlain said.

According to people with knowledge of the organizations plans, the new investment fund which is targeting $150 million but has hard cap of $225 million would compliment the existing investment vehicle to give the firm more firepower as additional capital floods into the battery industry.

Chamberlain declined to comment specifically on the fund, given restrictions, but did say that his firm had a mandate to invest in technology that is battery and storage related and that “enables the ubiquitous adoption of electric vehicles and the ubiquitous adoption of solar and wind.”

Back during the first cleantech boom the brains behind Volta witnessed a lot of good money getting poured into bad ideas and vaporware that would never amount to commercial success, said Chamberlain. Volta was formed to educate investors on the real opportunities that scientists were tracking in energy storage and back those companies with dollars.

“We knew that investors were throwing money into a dumpster fire. We knew it could have a negative impact on this transition to carbon,” Chamberlain said. “Our whole objective was to help guide individuals deploying massive amounts of their personal wealth and move it from putting money into an ongoing dumpster fire.”

That mission has become even more important as more money floods into the battery market, Chamberlain said.

The SPAC craze set off by Nikola’s public offering in electric vehicles and continuing through QuantumScape’s battery SPAC through a slew of other electric vehicle offerings and into EV charging and battery companies has made the stakes higher for everyone, he said.

Chamberlain thinks of Volta’s mission as finding the best emerging technologies that are coming to market across the battery and power management supply chain and ensure that as manufacturing capacity comes online, the technology is ready to meet growing demand.

“Investors who do not truly understand the energy storage ecosystem and its underlying technology challenges are at a distinct disadvantage,” said Goldman Sachs veteran and early Volta investor Randy Rochman, in a statement. “It has become abundantly clear to me that nothing happens in the world of energy storage without Volta’s knowledge. I can think of no better team to identify energy storage investment opportunities and avoid pitfalls.”  

The new fund from Volta has already backed a number of new energy storage and enabling technologies including: Natron, which develops high-power, fire-safe Sodium-ion batteries using Prussian blue chemistry for applications that demand a quick discharge of power; Smart Wires, which develops hardware that acts as a router for electricity to travel across underutilized power lines to optimize the integration of renewable power and energy storage on the grid; and Ionic Materials, which makes solid lithium batteries for both transportation and grid applications. Ionic Materials’ platform technology also enables breakthrough advancements in other growing markets, such as 5G mobile, and rechargeable alkaline batteries. 

 

Torii announces $10M Series A to automate SaaS management

By Ron Miller

Today, that software is offered as a cloud service should be pretty much considered a given. Certainly any modern tooling is going to be SaaS, and as companies and employees add services, it becomes a management nightmare. Enter Torii, an early-stage startup that wants to make it easier to manage SaaS bloat.

Today, the company announced a $10 million Series A investment led by Wing Venture Capital with participation from prior investors Entree Capital, Global Founders Capital, Scopus Ventures and Uncork Capital. The investment brings the total raised to $15 million, according to the company. Under the terms of the deal, Wing partner Jake Flomenberg is joining the board.

Uri Haramati, co-founder and CEO, is a serial entrepreneur who helped launch Houseparty and Meerkat. As a serial founder, he says that he and his co-founders saw first-hand how difficult it was to manage their companies’ SaaS applications and the idea for Torii developed from that.

“We all felt the changes around SaaS and managing the tools that we were using. We were all early adopters of SaaS. We all [took advantage of SaaS] to scale our companies and we felt the same thing: The fact is that you just can’t add more people who manage more software, it just doesn’t scale,” Haramati told me.

He said they started Torii with the idea of using software to control the SaaS sprawl they were experiencing. At the heart of the idea was an automation engine to discover and manage all of the SaaS tools inside an organization. Once you know what you have, there is a no-code workflow engine to create workflows around those tools for key activities like onboarding or offboarding employees.

Torii no code workflow engine.

Torii Workflow Engine. Image Credits: Torii

The approach seems to be working. As the pandemic struck in 2020, more companies than ever needed to control and understand the SaaS tooling they had, and revenue grew 400% YoY last year. Customers include Delivery Hero, Chewy, Monday.com and Palo Alto Networks.

The company also doubled its employees from a dozen they started last year with with plans to get to 60 people by the end of this year. As they do that, as experienced entrepreneurs Haramati told me they already understood the value of developing a diverse and inclusive workforce, certainly around gender. Today, the team is 25 people with 10 being women and they are working to improve those ratios as they continue to add new people.

Flomenberg invested in Torii because he was particularly impressed with the automation aspect of the company and how it took a holistic approach to the SaaS management problem, rather than attempting to solve one part of it. “When I met Uri, he described this vision. It was really to become the operating system for SaaS. It all starts with the right data. You can trust data that is gathered from [multiple] sources to really build the right picture and pull it together. And then they took all those signals and they built a platform that is built on automation,” he said.

Haramati admits that it’s challenging to scale in the midst of a pandemic, but the company is growing and is already working to expand the platform to include product recommendations and help with compliance and cost control.

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Knock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical raises $3.3M to modernize calendars

By Frederic Lardinois

Calendars. They are at the core of how we organize our workdays and meetings, but despite regular attempts to modernize the overall calendar experience, the calendar experience you see today in Outlook or G Suite Google Workspace hasn’t really changed at its core. And for the most part, the area that startups like Calendly or ReclaimAI have focused on in recent years is scheduling.

Magical is a Tel Aviv-based startup that wants to reinvent the calendar experience from the ground up and turn it into more of a team collaboration tool than simply a personal time-management service. The company today announced that it has raised a $3.3 million seed round led by Resolute Ventures, with additional backing from Ibex Investors, Aviv Growth Partners, ORR Partners, Homeward Ventures and Fusion LA, as well as several angel investors in the productivity space.

The idea for the service came from discussions on Supertools, a large workplace-productivity community, which was also founded by Magical founder and CEO Tommy Barav.

Image Credits: Magical

Based on the feedback from the community — and his own consulting work with large Fortune 500 multinationals — Barav realized that time management remains an unsolved business problem. “The time management space is so highly fragmented,” he told me. “There are so many micro tools and frameworks to manage time, but they’re not built inside of your calendar, which is the main workflow.”

Traditional calendars are add-ons to bigger product bundles and find themselves trapped under those, he argues. “The calendar in Outlook is an email sidekick, but it’s actually the center of your day. So there is an unmet need to use the calendar as a time management hub,” he said.

Magical, which is still in private beta, aims to integrate many of the features we’re seeing from current scheduling and calendaring startups, including AI-scheduling and automation tools. But Magical’s ambition is larger than that.

Image Credits: Magical

“We want to redefine how you use a calendar in the first place,” Barav said. “Many of the innovations that we’ve seen are associated with scheduling: how you schedule your time, letting you streamline the way you schedule meetings, how you see your calendar. […] But we’re talking about redefining time management by giving you a better calendar, by bringing these workflows — scheduling, coordinating and utilizing — into your calendar. We’re redefining the use of the calendar in the modern workspace.”

Since Magical is still in its early days, the team is still working out some of the details, but the general idea is to, for example, turn the calendar into the central repository for meeting notes — and Magical will feature tools to collaborate on these notes and share them. Team members will also be able to follow those meeting notes without having to participate in the actual meeting (or get copied on the emails about that meeting).

“We’ll help teams reduce pointless meetings,” Barav noted. To do this, the team is also integrating other service into the calendar experience, including the usual suspects like Zoom and Slack, but also Salesforce and Notion, for example.

“It’s rare that you find an entrepreneur who has so clearly validated its market opportunity,” said Mike Hirshland, a founding partner of Magical investor Resolute Ventures. “Tommy and his team have been talking to thousands of users for three years, they’ve validated the opportunity, and they’ve designed a product from the ground-up that meets the needs of the market. Now it’s ‘go time’ and I’m thrilled to be part of the journey ahead.”

Pandemic-era growth and SPACs are helping edtech startups graduate early

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Special purpose acquisition vehicles regained popularity in 2020 as an alternative way to take startups public, and now they are eyeing edtech companies.

So far, Skillsoft has gone public through Churchill Capital, and Nerdy, parent company of Varsity Tutors, did the same through a reverse merger with TPG Pace Tech Opportunities. On the investor side, Edify and Adit EdTech Acquisition are both separate, $200 million SPACs for education companies.

SPACs are not being used to prop up companies that can’t go public through traditional means.

But is there anything specific to SPACs that makes them a better route for edtech companies than a traditional IPO or direct listing? To explore the question, I reached out to Chuck Cohn, CEO of Nerdy, which is currently in the process of being SPACed by TPG, and Susan Wolford, chairperson of Edify Acquisition, a $200 million SPAC for edtech companies.

Nerdy’s business is growing, but the company doesn’t expect to be profitable until 2023 and wants to drive revenues up 31% and 43% from its 2020 and 2021 expectations, respectively. Cohn said the balance sheet looks the way it does because they are heavily investing in product and engineering, and focusing on being well-capitalized.

The SPAC, he said, is an opportunity to accelerate Nerdy’s core business: “It’s less about going into the public markets, and more about that this transaction allows us to take an offensive position and lean into the big opportunities.”

Cohn said they pursued a SPAC because it is a faster route to going public. As vaccines roll out, growth in remote learning will slow, which could hurt growth expectations — especially ones as ambitious as Nerdy’s. For that reason, it’s clear why some edtech companies want to get out to the public markets as soon as possible.

Despite some naysayers, Cohn said SPACs are not being used to prop up companies that can’t go public through traditional means.

“I think that perception was fair a year ago,” he said. “But if you look at companies that have taken this route recently, including OpenDoor, they are very high quality. There’s a fundamental perception change.” He added that “SPACs have been reaching out over the years,” but the timing felt more fortuitous due to TPG’s interest and track record.

On the other side of the table, Wolford said she is currently searching for an edtech company to bring public on behalf of Edify, a $200 million SPAC she has raised. She noted that PIPE instruments, aka private investments in public entities, have helped de-risk SPACs for the general audience. These instruments have been around for decades, but Wolford said they recently became more mainstream to use in SPACs.

DuPont and VCs see lithium mining as a critical investment for the electric future

By Jonathan Shieber

“Mining” has become synonymous with crypto the past few years in the tech industry, what with Bitcoin piercing the $50,000 barrier and GPUs and ASICs worldwide scrambling to hash functions in a bid for distributed crypto manna. That excitement belies an increasingly energetic push though to bring VC dollars and entrepreneurial acumen back to Mining 1.0 — actual meatspace resource extraction.

One of the key target resources is lithium, a critical component for smartphones, electric vehicle batteries and nearly every other electric tool of modern convenience and industrial import. China through its mining companies and battery manufacturers is currently in the lead, thanks to a years-long push to control both the supply of lithium and develop massive new manufacturing capacity to meet global demand. As tensions rise between China and the United States however, companies are racing to find alternative supplies as the world transitions to more electric-based infrastructure systems.

That’s one reason why DuPont is making a push to prove out its extraction technologies.

The water filtration and purification service provider DuPont Water Solutions has teamed up with Vulcan Energy Resources, a developer of lithium mining and renewable energy projects, to test a new process for direct lithium extraction.

Current processes for mining lithium are bad for the environment (to put it mildly), involving heavy use of toxic chemicals and increasingly scarce water resources. This new joint project, which is being developed in the Upper Rhine Valley of Germany, would tap DuPont’s direct lithium extraction products and filtration expertise to mine and refine lithium in a more environmentally-friendly way, the company said.

Dr. Francis Wedin, Managing Director of Vulcan, said in a statement that “DuPont’s diverse set of products, which can be manufactured at scale, are likely to be well-suited to sustainably extract the lithium from the brine.”

DuPont is hoping to push the technology out across the mining industry and make its portfolio of sorbents, nanofiltration technologies, reverse osmosis filters, ion exchange resins, ultrafiltration, and close-circuit reverse osmosis products available to a wider group of customers.

A push by DuPont to become more involved in the lithium-mining business will heighten competition for startups like Lilac Solutions, which has developed its own technology for lithium extraction. The company has partnered with an Australian company, Controlled Thermal Resources, to develop lithium brine deposits in the Salton Sea, which is among California’s most blighted environmental disasters.

Last year, the Oakland-based startup announced a $20 million investment led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures (those folks are everywhere), the MIT-affiliated investment firm The Engine and early Uber investor Chris Sacca’s relatively new climate-focused fund, Lowercarbon Capital.

Outside Lilac, there’s been a stream of VC dollars flowing into the (non-crypto) mining business as software helps extraction companies operate more efficiently. Notable investments include high-tech prospectors like KoBold Minerals (another Breakthrough Energy Ventures portfolio company), which uses big data and machine learning to help pick better targets for mines and Lunasonde, which prospects from space using satellites.

Other solutions to the lithium problem are attracting investor attention, too. For Jeff Chamberlain, the founder and chief executive of the battery technology investment firm Volta Energy Technologies, an alternative may be found in “urban mining,” or the recycling of used lithium-ion batteries. For decades, lead-acid batteries have been recycled for their component materials, and Chamberlain expects that the lithium-ion supply chain will evolve to support more efficient reuse of existing materials as well.

There’s a slew of companies trying to prove Chamberlain right. They include businesses like Li-Cycle, which yesterday announced that it would go public through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) in a deal that would value the company at $1.67 billion.

Meanwhile, privately-held and venture-backed startups are developing other recycling solutions. Battery Resourcers, a spinout from Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute, is focused on making cathode power converters from recycled scrap. Singapore-based Green Li-ion is another company that’s opening a recycling plant for lithium-ion battery cathodes, and Northvolt, a Swedish battery startup that was founded by former Tesla executives in 2016, already has an experimental recycling plant up and running.

Finally there’s J.B. Straubel’s Nevada-based startup Redwood Materials, which was one of the first companies to receive funding from Amazon through its Climate Pledge Fund.

“Ultimately we won’t have to extract lithium out of rock. We can extract lithium from pools and using urban mining,” said Chamberlain. Call it Mining 1.0, Version 2 — but it’s just the kind of investment our world needs if we are going to secure a better climate future.

Edgybees raises $9.5M Series A for its aerial video augmentation service

By Frederic Lardinois

Edgybees, a company that helps businesses, first responders and military users accurately geotag and augment their aerial video streams in real time, today announced that it has raised a $9.5 million Series A round. The news comes almost exactly two years after the company announced its $5.5 million seed round. Seraphim Capital, which specializes in space tech investments, led this new round. New investors Refinery Ventures, LG Technology Ventures, Kodem Growth, as well as existing investors OurCrowd, 8VC, Verizon Ventures and Motorola Solutions Venture Capital also participated.

“Our mission is to ensure positive human outcomes during life-saving missions,” says Edgybees co-founder and CEO Adam Kaplan. “Our new partners will be key to continuing to push our mission forward. With their unique industry expertise, we are poised to expand our global footprint and drive innovation within the industry. We look forward to the next phase of growth, meeting the critical demands of the defense, public safety and critical infrastructure markets.”

Using the company’s Visual Intelligence Platform, users can easily register and track assets in video show by a drone, for example. The standard use case here would be to help first responders get an accurate picture of an evolving emergency on top of live images from the scene, with the ability to track all of their assets and personnel in real time. But Edgybees has also shown other use cases that range from tracking and visualizing golf games to insurance and defense use cases.

About a year ago, Edgybees, which had its start in Israel but is now based in San Diego, launches its Argus platform, which makes it easier for users to bring their own drone and other live video platforms to the service’s geo-registration engine.

Image Credits: Edgybees

“Edgybees solves a huge problem in spatial computing: how do you really know what you are seeing through fast moving airborne or other video feeds? Edgybees brings together the real and virtual worlds and helps first responders save lives, industrial drone users save money, and defense teams get the mission done,” Ourcrowd CEO Jon Medved explained.

Similarly, Seraphim managing partner and CEO Mark Boggett noted that he thinks of Edgybees as a Google Maps fused with live video. “Their geo-referencing capability is a breakthrough technology that brings a new level of insight and usability to video streams from space, drones or bodycams. We are very excited about Edgybees, not only for the innovation it brings to public safety and defense, but because its ability to be utilized in a wide range of industries,” he said.

Image Credits: Edgybees

SeedFi closes on $65M to help financially struggling Americans get ahead

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and struggle to get out of a debt cycle.

One startup is developing financial products targeted toward this segment of the population, with the goal of helping them build credit, save money, access funds and plan for the future.

That startup, SeedFi, announced Wednesday it has raised $50 million in debt and $15 million in an equity funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz, also known as a16z. The VC firm also led SeedFi’s $4 million seed funding when it was founded in March of 2019.

Flourish, Core Innovation Capital and Quiet Capital also participated in the latest financing.

SeedFi was founded on the premise that it is difficult for many Americans to get ahead financially. Its founding team has worked at both startups and big banks, such as JPMorgan Chase and Capital One, and operates under the premise that many legacy financial institutions are simply not designed to help Americans who are struggling financially to get ahead. 

“We’ve seen firsthand how the system has been designed for underprivileged Americans to fail,” said Jim McGinley, co-founder and CEO of SeedFi. “Our average customer earns $50,000 a year, yet they pay $460 a year in overdraft fees and payday loan companies charge them APRs of 400% or more. They barely make enough to cover their expenses and any misstep can set them back for years.”

In previous roles, McGinley was responsible for payday loans for underserved communities.

“There I got insights to the financial difficulties they had and the need for better products to help them get a step up,” he told TechCrunch.

Co-founder Eric Burton said he can relate because he grew up in Central Texas as part of “a super poor family.”

“I experienced all the struggles of being low income and the necessity of taking on high-priced credit to get through day to day,” he recalled. “I personally was trapped in a debt cycle for a long time.”

In fact, a job offer he got from Capital One was temporarily rescinded because the company said he had “bad credit,” which turned out to be a result of unpaid medical bills he’d incurred at the age of 18.

“I didn’t know about them, but was able to get the job after using my signing bonus to pay off that debt,” he said. “So I can understand how a certain starting point makes it very hard to progress.”

SeedFi’s goal is to tackle the root of the problem. It launched in private beta in 2019, and helped its initial customers build more than $500,000 in savings — even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, it’s launching to the public with two offerings. One is a credit building product that is designed to “create important long-term savings habits.” Customers save as little as $10 from every paycheck, which is reported to the credit bureaus to build their credit history, and are then able to generate $500 in savings in six months’ time.

After six months of on-time payments, SeedFi customers with no credit history were able to establish a credit score of 600, while customers with existing credit scores and less than three credit accounts boosted their scores by 45 points, according to the company.

The concept of enabling consumers to build credit history beyond traditional methods is becoming increasingly more common. Just last week, we wrote about Tomo Credit, which provides customers with a debit card so they can build credit based on their cash flow.

SeedFi’s other offering, the Borrow & Grow Plan, is designed to be a more affordable alternative to installment or payday loans. It provides consumers with “immediate access” to funds while also helping them build savings and credit. 

Andreessen Horowitz general partner Angela Strange , who has joined SeedFi’s board with the financing, believes there’s “a massive business opportunity for new financial services entrants to reach historically underserved populations through better product experiences, underwriting and technology.”

In a blog post, she shares an example of how SeedFi works. The company evaluates risk and extends credit to a customer that might be traditionally hard to underwrite. It determines how much to lend, as well as the proportion of dollars to give as money now versus savings. 

“For instance, a typical SeedFi plan might be structured as $500 right now and $500 reserved in a savings account. The borrower pays off $1,000 over time, and at the end of the plan, he or she has $500 in a savings account. Not only has the borrower paid a lower interest rate, he or she is in a better financial position after making the decision to borrow money,” Strange writes.

Looking ahead, SeedFi plans to use its new capital to build out its product suite and grow its customer base. 

“We will be able to more efficiently fund our growing loan portfolio and serve more customers,” McGinley said.

Live video shopping startup Talkshoplive raises $3M

By Anthony Ha

Talkshoplive is a startup that’s worked with stars like Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks, as well as small businesses, to host shopping-focused live videos. Today, it’s announcing that it has raised $3 million in seed funding led by Spero Ventures.

CEO Bryan Moore founded the company with his sister Tina in 2018. Moore previously led social media efforts at Twentieth Television (previously known as Twentieth Century Fox) and CBS Television, and he said he was inspired  to launch Talkshoplive by the rise of livestreamed shopping experiences in China.

At the same time, Moore said it wasn’t enough to just copy what worked in China: “Small businesses are different here, talent is different, the needs are different.” One of the keys, in his view, is to focus on helping creators and businesses meet their customers where those customers already are — which he also suggested differentiates Talkshoplive from competing services as well.

For one thing, the startup does not require consumers to download any additional apps in order to watch its videos. Instead, it’s created a video player that works on the Talkshoplive website, on the websites of its partners and anywhere else that videos can be embedded. And wherever those videos are played, they also include a one-click buy button.

Moore said Talkshoplive started out with a focus in books and music, working with famous names like Matthew McConaughey, Alicia Keys and Dolly Parton, as well as the aforementioned Brooks and McCartney. For example, Brooks used Talkshoplive to exceed more than 1 million vinyl pre-sales for his “Legacy Collection” box set in 2019.

On the book side, Talkshoplive has worked with publishers including Harper Collins, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster and Macmillan. And Moore claimed the platform three to nine times the sales an author would see on other e-commerce sites.

At the same time, he emphasized that the startup is also working with more than 3,500 small businesses, and he said that when a small business owner is broadcasting on Talkshoplive, “You’re creating your own micro-fandom by being able to tell the story … You’re making yourself a brand story, even as a small business.”

He added, “When you’re able to help people move $25,000 in a show — for a small business, that’s a huge deal.”

In this sense, Moore said he sees Talkshoplive as a continuation of his previous work in social media, all connected by the question, “How are you creating human connection in a digital landscape?” The “ultimate goal,” he added, is turn the platform into a “digital Main Street” for businesses everywhere.

More recently, Talkshoplive has been moving into other categories like food and beauty, and Moore said he’s excited to work with Spero Founding Partner Shripriya Mahesh (previously an executive at eBay and First Look Media) to “continually evolve our product and create these tools that help us scale faster — and also help benefit these businesses.”

“From the moment we met the talkshoplive team, we were impressed with their focus on enabling SMB’s with a new, creative, innovative way to build their businesses,” Mahesh said in a statement. “Talkshoplive also innovates on the marketplace model with a way for buyers to truly engage with the sellers, get to know them, and experience shopping in a whole new way. We are incredibly excited by the community that is taking shape at talkshoplive and are thrilled to be working with Bryan, Tina, and the TSL team as they grow their community and the marketplace.”

 

Investors are missing out on Black founders

By Richard Dal Porto
Craig J. Lewis Contributor
Craig J. Lewis is the founder and CEO of Gig Wage, a simplified fintech payroll platform built for contract workers.

I’m a Black man in America — that’s hard. Black founders, and uniquely Black founders in tech, are facing insurmountable odds.

As the recipients of less than 1% of venture capital raise, institutionalized systems are visibly at play. Within almost 10 years of my entrepreneurial journey, I have encountered just as many setbacks and failures as I have successes.

However, I have pressed forward despite the disparities that often plague the Black entrepreneurial community. From imbalances in fundraising to minimal capital and access, Black brilliance and its cloak of resilience continues to rise.

Now, as a CEO who has ambitiously raised nearly $13 million for my current venture, against the odds, I posit that it is not the Black founders who are missing out the most — it is the investors who are at a loss, not comprehending that they have underestimated the power of these founders’ Black brilliance.

Black founders need to own their resiliency and leverage the power that has resulted from their unique experiences.

When you think about the intersection of venture capital and technology, and specifically how it works — it is being led from an engineering perspective. Developers and coders historically go to specific schools and colleges, entering a funnel that guides them to success.

Historically, many Black students (more so Black male students), are influenced by sports as a vehicle to higher education and not necessarily the institutions recognized for technological prowess.

Their parents and community encourage athleticism because that is the only thing they know — as an institutionalized mindset reinforced over time. Unless they are guided into the accepted foundations for technology, or get into a Cal Berkeley, Stanford or Harvard, where many of the technology companies are built, they are immediately funneled outside of the “circle,” which sets the first of many ongoing obstacles for a Black tech founder.

I offer, however, that these “obstacles” are not in fact barriers but the crucial catalyst for these founders’ superpowers.

Admittedly, there were no entrepreneurs in my family. I did not have access to information about the best colleges. Despite having great grades and graduating with honors, I was completely unaware of how valuable an Ivy League education could be.

As a star basketball player, with my skills and grades, I could have played and graduated from somewhere like Yale, Brown, Columbia or even a school like Southern Methodist University where I was offered a full scholarship. But because of the lack of knowledge that I could actually do so and benefit from being inside the Ivy League “circle,” I didn’t.

I was in college from 2000 to 2004. A lot of great companies were started at elite schools during that period. It is this institutional blocking of information from myself and many other Black students that molded our overall perspective and created our glass ceilings.

Breaking through that glass ceiling, overcoming these odds to press forward relentlessly, with unyielding focus, and to hold conversations with the types of investors I have had to sit in front of, with the type of company that I have built, takes a different level of brilliance that only the Black experience can provide. For 2021 and beyond, Black founders need to not only recognize, but unlock that power as they look to fundraise and catapult their tech companies to success. It would be smart, and incredibly beneficial for investors, venture capitalists and the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem to take heed.

For Black founders, a paradigm shift is evident, but it can only manifest if implemented in these five ways.

Black founders: Forget what you think works in fundraising

Black founders and specifically Black tech founders are fed a monotonous script of how to raise money “the right way,” in light of disparaging statistics highlighting a lack of funding — so much that there is a robotic approach to the process. They try to become this cookie-cutter entrepreneur that is designed to raise money from investors, with their playbook and by their rules.

Black founders capitulate and conform to what society has dictated as appropriate fundraising, often glorifying the investor with the fate of their startup in their hands, without realizing that they hold the negotiating power. Their playbook hasn’t won us any games. As of today, own your power.

Become an irresistible force: Leverage your expertise

Set the playbook aside and lean more into your expertise and uniqueness.

Years ago, Mark Cuban delivered a keynote address at Dallas Startup Week that chronicled his road to success. One of his main points was to “Know your business, and know your business cold.” It was so simple, yet so impactful.

Early on in my career, I learned about venture capital from my experiences working for a startup. While I did not know the area in depth, I referenced what little knowledge I had as I raised for my own company years later. Although I was limited in my dealings with venture capitalists, I was confident in my background and expertise (at that time as a payroll technology sales professional) to truly stake my claim and seat at the table.

So while they may have sold a company for $7 billion or have $35 billion AUM (assets under management), I knew that they were not as well-versed in payroll or payroll technology than I was. It was this tenacious mindset that made me look at investors, rather than up to them, thereby positioning us on equal footing.

Connect in the common goal of brilliance

As a Black founder in tech, I have encountered many injustices — from networking to fundraising to the game of business as a whole. Even among those sitting at the table, there is a plethora of worldviews, political preferences, religious propensities and more that create a melting pot of divisiveness. However, recognizing that the common thread between all of the players in the game is the desire to be part of the brilliant business opportunity at hand is what will ultimately prevail.

It served me well not to overindex whether the venture capitalists liked me or on our differences. Locking in on the ambition of my entrepreneurial spirit and focusing on my brilliance — my Black brilliance — made them want to invest in me. Simplistically, investors want to give their money to founders who will make them money — passionately and ambitiously. Be you and find the investor that appreciates you.

Get in front of as many investors as you can

Black founders are not getting in front of enough investors. Systemically, the venture capital landscape has marginalized this community and has failed to expand their network for inclusiveness. Currently, ethnic minorities are severely underrepresented in the venture capital industry. Eighty percent of investment partners are white, with only a staggering 3% being Black or African-American.

Regardless, Black entrepreneurs must press forward and still show up. The sheer number of people that entrepreneurs must face during the fundraising process is astronomical, so one must not be swayed by the disillusionment of opportunity.

Realistically speaking, it takes a long time to raise money. Period. I have talked to thousands of potential investors to raise nearly $13 million for my current company. If you are a Black founder, it is going to take you longer to fundraise and you are going to have to get in front of more people. So I ask, “Do you have enough oxygen in the tank to withstand the obstacles, for a long enough period of time, to attract the venture capital that you need?The wealth gap says no.

When I first started Gig Wage, the number one question I received from investors is, “How much runway do you have?” I would answer, “Until I get to where I need to get.” They would then rephrase, “How much money do you have in the bank? How long is your wife going to let you do this?” I would reply, “It does not matter how much money I have in the bank because I’m going to keep going until this happens.”

Discriminatively, there was this unspoken expectation that I lacked the financial wherewithal and stamina to withstand the fundraising process, and at times it was extremely discouraging — because to be honest, when I looked in the bank account, I realistically had about nine to 12 months of runway.

The reason Black people raise less than 1% of venture capital is because the racism weaved into the fabric of American society bleeds over into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Despite it all, I took thousands of meetings. I was willing to endure with an ambitious conviction that I was going to win. Again, this is Black brilliance.

Own your resiliency, own your power 

As a Black man, I have personally endured challenges to build resiliency — mirroring similar realities of other Black men in America. Whether it was dealing with the police or witnessing men in my family struggle with drugs, violence, poverty or the like — I often think, “Why would I be intimidated by an investor meeting or a term sheet?” The construct of America has dealt me much worse.

Black founders need to own their resiliency and leverage the power that has resulted from their unique experiences. The victory mentality that ensues thereafter is the type of mindset that venture capitalists should want to invest in, and if they do not, they are undoubtedly missing out.

The unyielding focus of “The world is stacked against me but I’m not going to quit. I’m going to pivot. I’m going to be resourceful. I’m going to figure it out — even if I’m scared,” is a person you need to invest in. It is not necessarily that they have a groundbreaking business idea, but culturally, Black people have a passion and a perspective that is unmatched, with limitless possibilities that venture capitalists are overlooking.

So for 2021 and well beyond, Black founders, and those especially in tech, need to shift their respective paradigms, own their place within the entrepreneurial space, take back their power and continue to operate at the utmost in Black brilliance. It is the investors, not the founders, that are missing out. Be bold. Be courageous. Be audacious.

As for me, the best thing that I can do right now is to continue to drive the conversation, illuminate the disparities and be as successful for Black entrepreneurs, Black professionals and the world at large as possible. I am owning my power and I’m committed to epitomizing and evangelizing Black brilliance.

Valoreo closes on $50M to roll up LatAm e-commerce brands

By Mary Ann Azevedo

A new breed of startups is acquiring and growing small but promising third-party merchants, and building out their own economies of scale.

And while there are a number of such startups based in the U.S. and Europe, none had emerged in the Latin American market. Until now.

Valoreo, a Mexico City-based acquirer of e-commerce businesses, announced Tuesday that it has raised $50 million of equity and debt financing in a seed funding round.

The dollar amount is large for a seed round by any standards, but most certainly ranks among the highest ever raised by a Latin American startup — further evidence of increased investor interest in the region’s burgeoning venture scene

Upper90, FJ Labs, Angel Ventures, Presight Capital and a slew of angel investors participated in the round. Those angels included David Geisen, head of Mercado Libre Mexico; BEA Systems’ co-founder Alfred Chuang; and Tushar Ahluwalia, founder of Razor Group, a European marketplace aggregator, among others.

Founded in late 2020, Valoreo aims to invest in, operate and scale e-commerce brands as part of its self-described mission “to bring better products at more affordable prices” to the Latin American consumer.

“We were substantially oversubscribed and were therefore able to select investors that not only provide capital, but also additional know-how in key areas,” said co-founder Alex Gruell.

Valoreo joins the growing number of startups focused on rolling up e-commerce brands.

The company’s model is similar to that of Thrasio — which just raised another $750 million–  and Perch in the U.S. But Valoreo says its approach has been tailored to “the specific needs of the Latin American market and is specifically focused on the Latin American end customer.”

Another new company in the space called Branded recently launched its own roll-up business on $150 million in funding. Others in the space include Berlin Brands Group, SellerX, Heyday and Heroes.

But as my colleague Ingrid Lunden points out, “the feverish pace of fundraising in the area of FBA roll-ups feels very much like a bubble in the market — not least because none of these still-young companies have yet to prove that the strategy to buy up and consolidate these sellers is a useful and profitable one.”

How it works

Valoreo (which the company says is an extension of the Spanish word “valor,” meaning to add value), acquires merchants that operate their own brands and primarily sell on online marketplaces such as Mercado Libre, Amazon and Linio. The company targets brands that offer “category-leading products” and which it believes have “significant growth potential.” It also develops brands in-house to offer a broader selection of products to the end customer.

Like Thrasio, Valoreo says it’s able to help entrepreneurs who may lack the resources and access to capital to take their businesses to the next level.

Co-founder and co-CEO Stefan Florea says the company takes less than five weeks typically from its initial contact with a seller to a final payout. 

Then, the acquired and developed brands are integrated into the company’s consolidated holding. By tapping its team of “specialists” in areas such as digital marketing and supply chain management, it claims to be able to help these brands “reach new heights” while giving the entrepreneurs behind the companies “an attractive exit,” or partial exit in some cases.

We have different structures, always taking into account the personal objectives of the seller,” Stefan Florea added.

Generally Valoreo acquires the majority of the business, with the purchase price typically being a combination of an upfront cash payment and a profit share component so sellers can still earn money.

Looking ahead, Valoreo plans to use its new capital mostly to acquire and develop “interesting” brands, as well as build out its current team of 10 while expanding its infrastructure and operations.

The company is currently focused on the Mexican and Brazilian markets, but is planning its expansion into other Latin American countries where it has strong local support systems, such as Colombia, according to co-founder Martin Florea.

Our mission is to be a pan-Latin American player providing value to the entire region,” Martin Florea said. “Latin America in general and Mexico in particular are in a distinct situation which provides phenomenal opportunities for e-commerce merchants on the one hand but also presents particular challenges on the other hand.”

Those challenges, according to Martin Florea, include limited access to growth capital, a lack of specialized expertise in certain areas (such as supply chain management), limited opportunities to sell their business and pursue new ventures, as well as operational burdens and the lack of capacities to expand into new countries and marketplaces.

Valoreo emphasizes it is not out to compete with Mercado Libre, Amazon and other regional marketplaces but instead wants to partner with them.

“Without these platforms, this opportunity would not exist,” Martin Florea said.

Hernán Fernández, founder and managing partner of Angel Ventures, believes Valoreo “will add a lot of value” to the Latin American e-commerce landscape, which is experiencing both market growth and the fragmentation of the seller space.

Jüsto co-founder and CEO (and Valoreo investor) Ricardo Weder notes that the e-commerce market is at an inflection point in Latin America. According to eMarketer, the region was the fastest-growing e-commerce market in the world in 2020, with 37% year over year growth. However, it is a much more fragmented and crowded market compared to other regions, such as the United States.

This, Valoreo believes, provides an opportunity for consolidation.

“There are still many consumers that are not aware of the great variety of outstanding local brands that sell innovative products on marketplaces online,” Stefan Florea said. “In the U.S. or Europe e-commerce is the new way of shopping, offering an even greater range of products and brands than offline shopping. We firmly believe it will not take long until end-customers in Mexico and across Latin America discover all the benefits that e-commerce offers.”

Titan nabs $12.5M for ‘next generation’ investment management

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Titan, a startup that is building a retail investment management platform aimed at millennials, has closed on $12.5 million in a Series A round led by VC heavyweight General Catalyst.

A bevy of other investors put money in the round, including Sound Ventures (actor Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary’s VC firm), Scribble VC, Y Combinator, South Park Commons, Instagram founder Mike Krieger, Lee Fixel and others. 

Titan is hoping to build on the momentum it saw in 2020, during which it grew revenue, customers and assets under management by 600%, “with effectively no marketing budget, according to co-founder Joe Percoco. The New York-based company says it’s approaching $500 million in assets under management and was cash flow positive last year.

Percoco met co-CEO Clay Gardner while the pair were at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“We came from two different backgrounds with respect to investing,” Percoco recalled. “He was the type that bought his first shares of stock at the ages of 11 and 12. I’m the exact opposite and couldn’t invest myself until after Goldman Sachs, where I went to work after Penn.”

Because the duo both worked in the industry, they found that friends and family were always asking them how they should manage their capital.

“We were sending them to ETFs and mutual funds in our day jobs,” Percoco said. “But we realized they did not have the same access to investing that the wealthier did.”

Frustrated with only helping the rich get richer, the pair founded Titan in 2017 with the goal of disrupting what they viewed as “an archaic industry. They’ve since built an operating system aimed at giving “everyday investors access to the types of investment products and experiences that they’ve historically been locked out of.” Or, as they describe, it a mobile version of what investment giants Fidelity and BlackRock created decades ago.

Titan’s capital management platform is designed for both accredited and unaccredited investors. The company says it provides access to services that would historically require a $1 million minimum, such as direct portfolio manager access. It charges a fee amounting to just 1% of assets, compared to the 2% – and in some cases 20% of profits – that legacy players charge.

“We believe Fidelity 2.0 will be direct-to-consumer with no walls and no black boxes,” Percoco said.

(For the unacquainted, according to Investopedia, black box accounting is the deliberate use of complex bookkeeping methodologies to make interpreting financial statements challenging and time-consuming.)

Its simplicity sets it apart. As TechCrunch previously reported, Titan’s app “chooses the best stocks by scraping top hedge fund data, adds some shorts based on your personal risk profile and puts your money to work. No worrying about market fluctuations or constantly rebalancing your portfolio. You don’t have to do anything, but can get smarter about stocks thanks to its in-app explanations and research reports.”

The startup currently offers two stock-focused strategies on its platform,

One of those strategies, called Flagship, is focused on large cap growth. The other, called Opportunities, focuses on smaller, under-the-radar companies.

All clients have direct access to its investment team and investor relations via Titan’s mobile operating system. The company also offers instant deposits, personal digital vaults (or separately managed accounts), fractional share-trading, and no lock-ups.

Titan’s core customer is the young professional in the 25-35 age range. 

“They’re already investing money somewhere, even if not that much of their money,” Gardner said. “But they’re well attuned to the reasons they should be… And, most asset management products remain in the Stone Age, offering 90-page prospectuses and black-box client experiences.”

As former TC editor Josh Constine explained when the company raised a $2.5 million seed round in October 2018, Titan differs from Robinhood or E*Trade, where users essentially are left to fend for themselves. But clients also have some control, unlike passive options such as Wealthfront and Betterment.

Looking ahead, Titan plans to use its new capital to scale its engineering and investment team, as well as make “significant investments” in product, marketing and operations. It also plans to launch several investment products across a variety of asset classes.  

“Many legacy players are hungry to have an OS to serve more folks they historically could not,” Percoco said. “We’re getting inbounds from legacy players in the space seeking to manage capital for new generations and realizing it will shift to mobile operating systems like Titan’s. Eventually, we can enable them to build their own investment products on Titan.” 

Katherine Boyle, partner at General Catalyst and Titan board member, said she was struck by Percoco and Gardner’s “deep empathy” for investors who are often overlooked — such as millennials and new investors “who have cash sitting in their checking accounts and want expert management but don’t know where to go.”

“They don’t want to be stock pickers but they don’t want a set-it-and-forget-it product,” Boyle said. “There’s another level of sophistication with actively managed products where the best managers are making investment decisions on behalf of those who can afford it. But there’s no reason why retail investors should be excluded from this model.”

She thinks Titan can capitalize on what she believes is millennials’ “deep lack of trust” in legacy institutions.

“We need new institutions like Titan to combat this lack of trust,” Boyle said. “And these new institutions need to have incentives that are aligned with their clients, not with hedge funds or banks.”

Redefine Meat is moving plant-based proteins from patties to steaks

By Jonathan Shieber

The Israeli startup Redefine Meat, which has developed a manufacturing process to make plant-based proteins that more closely resemble choice cuts of beef than the current crop of hamburger-adjacent offerings, has gotten a big vote of confidence from the investment arm of one of Asia’s premier food brands.

The company has raised $29 million in financing from Happiness Capital, the investment arm backed by the family fortunes of Hong Kong’s Lee Kum Kee condiment dynasty, and Hanaco Ventures, an investment firm backing startups in New York and Israel.

Investors have stampeded into the plant-based food industry, spurred by the rising fortunes of companies like Beyond Meat, which has inked partnerships with everyone from Pepsico to McDonald’s, and Impossible Foods, which counts Burger King among the brands boosting its plant-based faux meat.

While these companies have perfected plant patties that can delight the taste buds, the prospect of carving up a big honkin cut of pea protein in the form of a ribeye, sirloin or rump steak, has been a technical hurdle these companies have yet to overcome in a commercial offering.

Redefine Meat thinks its manufacturing processes have cracked the code on the formulation of plant-based steak.

They’re not the only ones. In Barcelona, a startup called Novameat raised roughly $300,000 earlier this year for its own take on plant-based steak. That company raised its money from the NEOTEC Program of the Spanish Center for Industrial Technological Development.

Both companies are using 3-D printing technologies to make meat substitutes that mimic the taste and texture of steaks, rather than trying to approximate the patties, meatballs, and ground meat that companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible have taken to market.

Backing Redefine’s path to market are a host of other investors including Losa Group, Sake Bosch, and K3 Ventures.

The company said it would use the new funding to expand its portfolio and support the commercial launch of its products. Redefine aims to have a large-scale production facility for its 3-D printers online before the end of the year, the company said in a statement.

In January, Redefine Meat announced a strategic agreement with the Israeli distributor Best Meister and the company has been expanding its staff with a current headcount of roughly 40 employees.

“We want to change the belief that delicious meat can only come from animals, and we have all the building blocks in place to make this a reality: high-quality meat products, strategic partnerships with stakeholders across the world, a large-scale pilot line under construction, and the first-ever industrial 3D Alt-Meat printers set to be deployed within meat distributors later this year,” said Eschar Ben-Shitrit, the company’s chief executive, in a statement. 

 

Zomentum raises $13 million to scale its sales acceleration platform for IT channel partners

By Manish Singh

Most small businesses, which form the backbone of an economy, today don’t have the resources to handle their IT needs. Take restaurants, for an example. They have likely outsourced this job to contract IT professionals to reduce expenses.

Every time they need to buy a point-of-sale machine, a printer, new computers, or assign business emails to employees, they reach out to a trusted IT advisor, who then works with vendor partners to secure products and services that the business needs.

“SMBs are often so focused on helping customers that they end up strapped for time to select the right technology that suits their business needs. Increasingly, more and more IT channel partners are assuming the role of trusted advisors to these SMBs for their technology needs,” said Shruti Ghatge, co-founder and chief executive of Zomentum.

These IT advisors play an immensely crucial role in helping companies with their sale. For even giants like Microsoft, it’s the reseller partners who drive much of their sales. But these professionals are still using legacy tools.

Ghatge, who earlier worked as an investor at Accel, spotted an opportunity in this space and is tackling it with her new startup Zomentum. The U.S.-headquartered startup’s platform allows IT partners to bring their entire sales process together, a phenomenon she said is helping them increase their revenue and close more sales in less time.

On Tuesday, three-year-old Zomentum, which aims to build a strong IT partner network that can serve as an effective sales channel to promote the hyperlocal IT market, said it has raised $13 million in its Series A round from Elevation Capital and Accel (existing investors), and Greenoaks Capital. The new round, which brings Zomentum’s to-date raise to $17.1 million, also saw participation from Eight Roads Ventures.

Citing internal research, Zomentum said average IT partners on its platform are able to create documents 70% faster, close twice as many deals with a 600% increase in deal value, and are seeing 2X increase in conversion.

“We see an opportunity to leverage the power of AI and data science to enable business insights for these channel partners. We want our partners and their clients to leverage AI-enabled Business Intelligence to help gain actionable insights and take smart decisions, something that until now, was available only to enterprises,” said Rahil Shah, co-founder and chief technology officer of Zomentum, in a statement.

More than 80% of Zomentum customers today are in the U.S., and Ghatge said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to expand its presence in the market and broaden its product offerings with features such as vCIO, QBR, assessments.

New European early-stage VC Revent launches with an impact focus, and sights set on a $60M first close

By Mike Butcher

Revent — a new European early-stage (pre-seed to series A) venture capital fund with an “impact” focus — is coming out of the gate today, and is poised to reach its target of a €50 million ($60 million) fund, with the first close of that already completed. Focusing on environmental and societal problems, Revent will be looking to fund startups with both “purpose and profit”. Headquartered in Berlin and investing across Europe it will home in on companies in climate tech, health and well-being, and economic empowerment.

The founding partners are Otto Birnbaum, who was previously with French VC Partech, but also worked at HelloFresh; Dr. Lauren Lentz, formerly of McKinsey and an expert in impact measurement; Emily Brooke MBE, founder of Beryl, a micromobility startup; and Henrik Grosse Hokamp, who worked previously for Partech’s late-stage fund.

Revent’s founder LP is Benjamin Otto, managing partner at the Otto Group. Otto is part of the influential and powerful Otto family in Hamburg, founders of the Otto Group. Benjamin Otto also backed the launch of two other German VCs, e.ventures and Project A. Other investors in the fund include Max Tayenthal (N26), Sascha Konietzke (Contentful), Verena Pausder (Fox & Sheep), Luis Hanemann (e.ventures), Benjamin Roth (Urban Sports Club) and Dr. Florian Heinemann (Project A).

Revent has so far made four investments: Tomorrow Bank, a sustainable challenger bank based in Hamburg; Sylvera, a London-based company that developed AI-enabled monitoring of nature-based carbon offsetting projects; Tmrow, a Denmark-based team building technology products for consumers and companies to understand and reduce their carbon footprint; and net purpose, an impact data stream for asset managers to understand the quantitative net impact of their portfolio, acting like a “Bloomberg” terminal of impact.

Commenting on the launch, Otto Birnbaum, Revent general partner said: “We’re not acting as philanthropists, but rather aim to demonstrate that achieving very attractive financial returns is possible precisely because of the positive impact these companies will achieve.”

Benjamin Otto, Revent anchor investor, said: “Social and ecological challenges have reached a new level of urgency. We depend on entrepreneurial innovation to find new solutions. With Revent, we want to create a platform for founders that not only provides them with optimal support but also contributes to a change in mindset: Entrepreneurial success and social-ecological impact can reinforce each other.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Brooke and Lentz said the “purpose economy” has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, which has amplified many of the planet’s systemic problems, such as inequality of access to healthcare and edtech, creating massive changes in the world of work. Their mission, they tell me, is to positively affect the lives of 1 million people and to abate 5 million tons of C02.

They also say they are seeing a new wave of founders who want to tackle these problems. While overall VC investment is up only by about 2%, investment in “impact” spaces such as edtech and mental health is booming.

As Brooke told me on a call: “We want to build a new version of venture capital, that authentically and genuinely prioritizes environmental returns and societal returns, along with commercial.”

Lentz said: “We think that there is this generation of founders who are looking for an investor who really brings both financing and an impact mindset. So not a classical impact-first impact investor, or a classic VC that is only looking at the growth trajectory and the financial upside returns. And we think that this founder is looking for an investor who really believes that these two things reinforce each other, and that the returns are going to be generated by positive societal impact, and that there needs to be a European home for this kind of founder.”

The main question is, how are they going to measure the impact?

Lentz said: “We view this holistically, and we start very early, so when we’re in diligence we go through a structured process of basically trying to assess the team, the founder DNA, how committed are they to achieving positive impact. We’re investing very early, usually pre-product, so we need to understand what is the motivation for this team. And then we try to systemically look at the different dimensions of impacts or how deep the impact, how many people will they reach, what additionality are they offering. We go through a structured exercise during the due diligence. And then we do something a bit unique which is we do an impact forecast. And so before we pull the trigger and invest we basically take what the founders have told us, and what we have learned through our conversations about possible growth trajectories, and we try to make some estimates and assumptions around the depth of the impact that the company will have. So it might be how much carbon do we think that the company will be able to beat or avert over the next eight years, or how many lives would they be able to significantly affect and to what extent… We’re not building a 20,000 line model, but we are trying to put some rigour around what we expect to happen on the impact side. Only if we anticipate that the company is going to have very significant potential upside from a commercial point of view and also very significant impact upside would we invest.”

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