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Amid controversy, Dispo confirms Series A funding, high-profile advisors, and investors

By Amanda Silberling

It’s only been nine months since Dispo rebranded from David’s Disposables. But the vintage-inspired photo sharing app has experienced a whiplash of ups and downs, mostly due to the brand’s original namesake, YouTuber David Dobrik.

Like Clubhouse, Dispo was one of this year’s most hyped up new social apps, requiring an invite from an existing member to join. On March 9, when the company said “goodbye waitlist” and opened the app up to any iOS user, Dispo looked poised to be a worthy competitor to photo-sharing behemoths like Instagram. But, just one week later, Business Insider reported on sexual assault allegations regarding a member of Vlog Squad, a YouTube prank ensemble headed by Dispo co-founder David Dobrik. Dobrik had posted a now-deleted vlog about the night of the alleged assault, joking, “we’re all going to jail” at the end of the video.

It was only after venture capital firm Spark Capital decided to “sever all ties” with Dispo that Dobrik stepped down from the company board. In a statement made to TechCrunch at the time, Dispo said, “Dispo’s team, product, and most importantly — our community — stand for building a diverse, inclusive and empowering world.”

Dispo capitalizes on Gen Z and young millennial nostalgia for a time before digital photography, when we couldn’t take thirty selfies before choosing which one to post. On Dispo, when you take a photo, you have to wait until 9 AM the following day for the image to “develop,” and only then can you view and share it.

In both February and March of this year, the app hit the top ten of the Photo & Video category in the U.S. App Store. Despite the backlash against Dobrik, which resulted in the app’s product page being bombarded with negative comments, the app still hit the top ten in Germany, Japan, and Brazil, according to their press release. Dispo reportedly has not yet expended any international marketing resources.

Now, early investors in Dispo like Spark Capital, Seven Seven Six, and Unshackled have committed to donate any potential profits from their investment in the app to organizations working with survivors of sexual assault. Though Axios reported the app’s $20M Series A funding news in February, Dispo put out a press release this morning confirming the financing event. Though they intend to donate profits from the app, Seven Seven Six and Unshackled Ventures remain listed as investors, but Spark Capital is not. Other notable names involved in the project include high-profile photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Raven B. Varona, who has worked with artists like Beyoncé and Jay-Z. Actresses Cara Delevingne and Sofía Vergara, as well as NBA superstars Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, are also involved with the app as investors or advisors.

Dobrik’s role in the company was largely as a marketer – CEO Daniel Liss co-founded the app with Dobrik and has been leading the team since the beginning. After Dobrik’s departure, the Dispo team – which remains under twenty members strong – took a break from communications and product updates on the app. It’s expected that after today’s funding confirmation, the app will continue to roll out updates.

Dispo is quick to shift focus to the work of their team, which they call “some of the most talented, diverse leaders in consumer tech.” With the capital from this funding round, they hope to hire more staff to become more competitive with major social media apps with expansive teams, like Instagram and TikTok, and to experiment with machine learning. They will also likely have some serious marketing to do, now that their attempt at influencer marketing has failed massively.

Now more than ever, Dispo is promoting the app as a mental health benefit, hoping to shift the tide away from manufactured perfectionism toward more authentic social media experiences.

“A new era of start ups must emerge to end the scourge of big tech’s destruction of our political fabric and willful ignorance of its impact on body dysmorphia and mental health,” CEO Daniel Liss writes in a Substack post titled Dispo 2.0. “Imagine a world where Dispo is the social network of choice for every teen and college student in the world. How different a world would that be?”

But, for an app that propelled to success off the fame of a YouTuber with a history of less than savory behavior, that messaging might fall flat.

According to Sensor Tower, the highest Dispo has ever ranked in the Photo & Video category on the U.S. App Store was in January 2020, when it was still called David’s Disposables. The app ranked No. 1 in that category from January 7 to January 9, and on January 8, it reached No. 1 among all free iPhone apps.

Kafene raises $14M to offer buy now, pay later to the subprime consumer

By Mary Ann Azevedo

The buy now, pay later frenzy isn’t going anywhere as more consumers seek alternatives to credit cards to fund purchases.

And those purchases aren’t exclusive to luxuries such as Pelotons (ahem, Affirm) or jewelry someone might be treating themselves to online. A new fintech company is out to help consumers finance big-ticket items that are considered more “must have” than “nice to have.” And it’s just raised $14 million in Series A funding to help it advance on that goal.

Neal Desai (former CFO of Octane Lending) and James Schuler (who participated in Y Combinator’s accelerator program as a high schooler) founded New York City-based Kafene in July 2019. The pair’s goal is to promote financial inclusion by meeting the needs of what it describes as the “consumers that are left behind by traditional lenders.”

More specifically, Kafene is focused on helping consumers with credit scores below 650 purchase retail items such as furniture, appliances and electronics with its buy now, pay later (BNPL) model. Consider it an “Affirm for the subprime,” says Desai.

Global Founders Capital and Third Prime Ventures co-led the round, which also included participation from Valar, Company.co, Hermann Capital, Gaingels, Republic Labs, Uncorrelated Ventures and FJ labs.

“Historically, if you could access credit, you could go to the bank or use a credit card,” Third Prime’s Wes Barton told TechCrunch. “But if you had some unexpected expense, and had to miss a payment with the bank, there would be repercussions and you could fall into a debt trap.”

Kafene’s “flexible ownership” model is designed to not let that happen to a consumer. If for some reason, someone has to forfeit on a payment, Kafene comes to pick up the item and the customer is no longer under obligation to pay for it moving forward.

The way it works is that Kafene buys the product from a merchant on a consumers’ behalf and rents it back to them over 12 months. If they make all payments, they own the item. If they make them earlier, they get a “significant” discount, and if they can’t, Kafene reclaims the item and takes the loan loss.

Image Credits: Kafene

It’s a modern take on Rent-A-Center, which charges more money for inferior products, Desai believes.

“This is also a superior product to credit cards, and the size of that market is massive,” Barton said. “We want to take a huge chunk of credit card business in time, and give consumers the flexibility to quit at any point in time, and fly free, if you will.”

Such flexibility, Kafene claims, helps promote financial inclusion by giving a wider range of consumers options to alternative forms of credit at the point of sale.

It also helps people boost their credit scores, according to Desai, because if they buy out of the loan earlier than the 12-month term, their credit score goes up because Kafene reports them as a positive payer.

“In any situation where they don’t steal the item, their credit score improves,” he said. “Even if they end up returning it because they can’t afford it. In the long run, they can have a better credit score to qualify for a traditional loan product.”

Kafene rolled out a beta of its financing product in December of 2019 and then had to pause in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company essentially “hibernated” from March to June 2020 and re-launched out of beta last July.

By October, Kafene stopped all enrollment with merchants because it had more demand that it could handle — largely fueled by more people being financially strained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2021, the company was handling about $2 million a month in merchandise volume.

With its new capital, Kafene plans to significantly scale its existing lease-to-own financing business nationally, as well as to launch a direct-to-consumer virtual lease card.

Compose.ai raises $2.1M to help everyone write faster

By Alex Wilhelm

In today’s GPT-3 world, it’s not uncommon to hear about new software services that deal with text. Compose.ai is one such company, though it built its own language model to help folks write faster. Its early product work was enough for it to land a $2.1 million seed round led by Craft Ventures, it announced this morning.

Compose.ai is essentially an auto-complete function that works wherever you browse the web. The company is also building the capability for its AI-powered backend to learn your voice, imbibe context to help provide better responses, and, in time, absorb a company’s larger voice to help align its aggregate writing output.

Co-founders Landon Sanford and Michael Shuffett told TechCrunch that Compose.ai believes that in five years, average folks won’t type every word that they write. They want to bring that future to more people through the Compose.ai Chrome extension, which hopefully workers can access without having to get corporate permission.

Sanford and Shuffett described their language algorithm as a multi-tier product. Its first tier learns from reading the internet itself, learning English. The second tier deals with specific domains, like email. The third tier learns a user’s voice, and, in time, a fourth tier will deal with a company’s generalized approach to language.

The ability for a company to provide its workers with a shared language model that could offer linguistic and word-choice preferences as they write is an interesting concept. The idea of such a strong, centrally held tone lands somewhere between helpful and intellectually rigid. But lots of folks don’t want to put their own spin on writing; many people don’t like writing at all. So perhaps having more central support won’t be onerous to most — but rather a time-saving hack.

Regardless, Compose.ai is going to staff up modestly with its new raise. The company currently has three full-time workers and some contract help. Sanford and Shuffett told TechCrunch that the company intends to stay small, hiring a few experienced engineering and machine-learning staff to help flesh out its product team.

What’s ahead for Compose? Its founders told TechCrunch that they are starting to talk to the corporate world a bit more than before and are planning on launching a paid service toward the end of the quarter. That could mean early revenue, extending the startup’s runway substantially.

What Compose is building isn’t technically simple, and the company has interesting work ahead of it to get its economics properly tuned. The company’s founders told TechCrunch that the personalization work that its product will execute for customers can be expensive if done incorrectly; the pair said that they could make a future, $10/month plan attractive economically, but if done in a “naive” fashion, Compose.ai could spend $500 in compute costs to support the same account.

That would be bad.

But the company is confident that its impending paid plans should shake out well in financial terms, which makes us all the more interested in giving that version of its product a spin when we get the chance.

Lifted raises $6.2M Series A round led by Fuel Ventures for its long-term social care platform

By Mike Butcher

As people live longer and longer and have long-term health issues like cancer and dementia, caring for elderly relatives is becoming a huge societal and political issue. Right now this care is antiquated and run by incumbents, many of which still run off paper and Excel. We are now seeing a new wave of startups turn up to tackle this space by applying Apple’s age-old model of owning the experience end-to-end and running everything on a platform.

The latest to join this race is U.K. startup Lifted, which has now raised $6.2 million in a Series A funding round led by Fuel Ventures. Also participating were existing investor 1818 Venture Capital as well as new investors Novit Ventures, Perivoli Innovations, the J.B. Ugland family office and a number of angels. This latest funding round takes the total raised by Lifted to $11.2 million.

Lifted says its U.K. market is increasing and claims the number of people caring for adult loved ones has risen exponentially during the pandemic, with almost one in two people supporting people outside their household.

The startup is entering a perfect storm of increasing need, unpopular care homes and the U.K. government still without a long-term plan for social care.

Lifted app

Lifted app

In contrast to a raft of agencies and freelancers, Lifted directly employs its care workforce and uses its platform to “gamify and improve the experience of carers to make them perform better in people’s lives and also to restore respect to the caring profession” with its Care Management Platform, says the company.

Lifted has also acquired the “Live Better With Dementia” website and launched the Lifted Dementia Hub, an online community with a marketplace of products.

Rachael Crook co-founded Lifted with Sam Cohen. She says she was inspired to get into the sector when, at the age of 24, she had to care for her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia at age 56. “I was in that position much younger than most people. And it seemed abundantly clear to me that it was an experience that was hugely emotionally important to me, and financially expensive, was really convoluted and frustrating. It made an already really difficult time, more difficult. My mum brought me up to really fight for the underdog and I felt like the carers themselves were getting a really poor deal. And yet, it’s a huge colossal market. The care market is set to double in the next 20 years, and for the next 10 years, we will look to compete against traditional care companies. We want to transform the care experience. This is a product that is worth four and a half times your mortgage. And yet, it’s predominantly bought in a really antiquated way with paper and pen systems. It’s really hard to keep up to date with your loved ones’ care. We’re also competing against new entrants.”

She added: “In 12 months, we have tripled revenue, launched the first App in the world to offer free care advice, and cut Carer churn to half the industry average, all while maintaining exclusively 5-star reviews on Trustpilot.”

Mark Pearson, managing partner of Fuel Ventures said: “Rachael, Sam and their team have delivered exceptional growth in the past year. They have a unique vision of the future for care and their model is delivering clear results for both sides of the marketplace.”

Version One launches $70M Fund IV and $30M Opportunities Fund II

By Darrell Etherington

Early stage investor Version One, which consists of partners Boris Wertz and Angela Tran, has raised its fourth fund, as well as a second opportunity fund specifically dedicated to making follow-on investments. Fund IV pools $70 million from LPs to invest, and Opportunities Fund II is $30 million, both up from the $45 million Fund III and roughly $20 million original Opportunity Fund.

Version One is unveiling this new pool of capital after a very successful year for the firm, which is based in Vancouver and San Francisco. 2021 saw its first true blockbuster exit, with Coinbase’s IPO. The investor also saw big valuation boosts on paper for a number of its portfolio companies, including Ada (which raises at a $1.2 billion valuation in May); Dapper Labs (valued at $7.5 billion after riding the NFT wave); and Jobber (no valuation disclosed but raised a $60 million round in January).

I spoke to both Wertz and Tran about their run of good fortune, how they think the fund has achieved the wins it recorded thus far, and what Version One has planned for this Fund IV and its investment strategy going forward.

“We have this pretty broad focus of mission-driven founders, and not necessarily just investing in SaaS, or just investing in marketplaces, or crypto,” Wertz said regarding their focus. “We obviously love staying early — pre-seed and seed — we’re really the investors that love investing in people, not necessarily in existing traction and numbers. We love being contrarian, both in terms of the verticals we go in to, and and the entrepreneurs we back; we’re happy to be backing first-time entrepreneurs that nobody else has ever backed.”

In speaking to different startups that Version One has backed over the years, I’ve always been struck by how connected the founders seem to the firm and both Wertz and Tran — even much later in the startups’ maturation. Tran said that one of their advantages is following the journey of their entrepreneurs, across both good times and bad.

“We get to learn,” she said. “It’s so cool to watch these companies scale […] we get to see how these companies grow, because we stick with them. Even the smallest things we’re just constantly thinking about— we’re constantly thinking about Laura [Behrens Wu] at Shippo, we’re constantly thinking about Mike [Murchison] and David [Hariri] at Ada, even though it’s getting harder to really help them move the needle on their business.”

Wertz also discussed the knack Version One seems to have for getting into a hot investment area early, anticipating hype cycles when many other firms are still reticent.

“We we went into crypto early in 2016, when most people didn’t really believe in crypto,” he said. “We started investing pretty aggressively in in climate last year, when nobody was really invested in climate tech. Having a conviction in in a few areas, as well as the type of entrepreneurs that nobody else really has conviction is what really makes these returns possible.”

Since climate tech is a relatively new focus for Version One, I asked Wertz about why they’re betting on it now, and why this is not just another green bubble like the one we saw around the end of the first decade of the 2000s.

“First of all, we deeply care about it,” he said. Secondly, we think there is obviously a new urgency needed for technology to jump into to what is probably one of the biggest problems of humankind. Thirdly, is that the clean tech boom has put a lot of infrastructure into the ground. It really drove down the cost of the infrastructure, and the hardware, of electric cars, of batteries in general, of solar and renewable energies in general. And so now it feels like there’s more opportunity to actually build a more sophisticated application layer on top of it.”

Tran added that Version One also made its existing climate bet at what she sees as a crucial inflection point — effectively at the height of the pandemic, when most were focused on healthcare crises instead of other imminent existential threats.

I also asked her about the new Opportunity Fund, and how that fits in with the early stage focus and their overall functional approach.

“It doesn’t require much change in the way we operate, because we’re not doing any net new investments,” Tran said. “So we recognize we’re not growth investors, or Series A/Series B investors that need to have a different lens in the way that they evaluate companies. For us, we just say we want to double down on these companies. We have such close relationships with them, we know what the opportunities are. It’s almost like we have information arbitrage.”

That works well for all involved, including LPs, because Tran said that it’s appealing to them to be able to invest more in companies doing well without having to build a new direct relationship with target companies, or doing something like creating an SPV designated for the purpose, which is costly and time-consuming.

Looking forward to what’s going to change with this fund and their investment approach, Wertz points to a broadened international focus made possible by the increasingly distributed nature of the tech industry following the pandemic.

“I think that the thing that probably will change the most is just much more international investing in this one, and I think it’s just direct result of the pandemic and Zoom investing, that suddenly the pipeline has opened up,” he said.

“We’ve certainly learned a lot about ourselves over the past year and a half,” Tran added. “I mean, we’ve always been distributed, […] and being remote was one of our advantages. So we certainly benefited and we didn’t have to adjust our working style too much, right. But now everyone’s working like this, […] so it’s going to be fun to see what advantage we come up with next.”

Airbase raises $60M as the corporate spend market segments, matures

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Airbase, a corporate spend startup, announced that it has closed a $60 million Series B led by Menlo Ventures. The deal’s announcement comes after Divvy, another corporate-spend focused startup, sold to Bill.com for several billion dollars, and other unicorns in the space like Brex and Divvy each raised nine-figure rounds.

According to Airbase CEO Thejo Kote, his company’s round is not a response to the Divvy sale. Instead, he told TechCrunch in an interview, his company kicked off its fundraising process before that deal was announced.

Not that what Airbase undertook was a process in the traditional sense; Kote did not spend months schlepping a deck along Sand Hill Road, imbibing mediocre architecture, overdressed MBAs and good weather in equal quantities. Instead, he decided that his firm was open to raising more capital in April despite having capital in the bank from previous investments, and 10 days later had signed a term sheet with Menlo.

Menlo partner and new Airbase board member Matt Murphy told TechCrunch in a separate interview that his firm had had its eye on the company for some time before its deal, allowing it to move quickly when Kote opened the door to more funding. (Murphy was candid in sharing that he had spent quite some time getting in front of Airbase, which we pass along as evidence of just how competitive the venture capital market can be in 2021.)

According to Kote, his firm’s new capital was raised on a $600 million valuation, post-money, which means that the Menlo-led transaction involved 10% of the company’s shares.

A segmenting market

TechCrunch’s coverage of the corporate spend market has largely focused on the revenue growth of the competing players, and their decision to either charge for the software that they offer along with corporate cards or not. But Kote views the market as segmenting in a somewhat different manner, namely along target customer scale. Divvy, for example, went after SMBs, while Airbase has more of a mid-market focus.

The customer targeting matters, with Kote telling TechCrunch that mid-market companies are looking for a single solution to replace various point-services that they have traditionally paid for. In the case of corporate spend, that could mean that many companies are willing to pay for new software so long as it can replace several services that they were buying discretely before; say, corporate cards and expense management software.

Kote said that the Divvy-Bill.com news was a “massive validation” of his company’s thesis that software would prove key in the market formerly focused on corporate cards, and that offering cards was itself a “race to the bottom.”

In the view of Airbase’s CEO, his company has a six to eight quarter lead on its competitors in product terms. The market will vet that perspective, but the company’s confidence in its vision and new capital should provide it with ample opportunity to prove out its thesis in the coming quarters, and see whether where it views its product in terms of market positioning viz. demand and competitors is correct.

The investor perspective

Menlo Ventures seems to think so, to the tune of its largest single check to date from a non-growth fund. What did Murphy et al. find so compelling about the company? In the investor’s view, Airbase has a shot at replacing point-solutions in mid-market companies, precisely as Kote imagines:

Airbase consolidates all the different spend apps which greatly decreases complexity in workflows as finance teams previously had to jump from app to app and don’t have a real time, holistic view in one place. […] Of course there is an advantage in not having to pay for multiple apps, but the biggest benefits are simplicity of workflows which is where we heard most of the product love.

Murphy continued, adding that at many companies “a manager won’t know until after [a quarter ends] whether the team for example spent above or below budget,” which makes integrated solutions more attractive.

Why does the viewpoint matter? It implies that the market that Airbase can sell into is rather large; instead of considering the aggregate non-payroll spend that its possible customer companies may generate and then applying an interchange vig to the total to calculate its potential scale, we might tabulate mid-market software spend on expenses, accounting and other categories as the startup’s true TAM. And as Airbase can still generate top-line from interchange and other sources, it could be well-situated for long-term growth.

Of course, its competitors are not interested in letting Airbase have all the fun. Ramp recently raised lots of capital, and is investing in its own software stack. With a free price point, it’s perhaps the most aggressive player on the interchange-first side of its market. And Brex is working to make lots of public noise, again, and has its own tower of cash, software focus and recently launched paid-SaaS service.

Now Airbase has more cash than it has ever had in its accounts, and has been busy hiring. The company has picked up a CFO, a general counsel and a VP of sales, from Mattermost, Robinhood and Dropbox, respectively.

Which all sounds very much like the long-term prep work for an eventual IPO. Set your timers for 2024.

AI pioneer Raquel Urtasun launches self-driving technology startup with backing from Khosla, Uber and Aurora

By Kirsten Korosec

One of the lingering mysteries from Uber’s sale of its Uber ATG self-driving unit to Aurora has been solved.

Raquel Urtasun, the AI pioneer who was the chief scientist at Uber ATG, has launched a new startup called Waabi that is taking what she describes as an “AI-first approach” to speed up the commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, starting with long-haul trucks. Urtasun, who is the sole founder and CEO, already has a long list of high-profile backers, including separate investments from Uber and Aurora. Waabi has raised $83.5 million in a Series A round led by Khosla Ventures with additional participation from Uber, 8VC, Radical Ventures, OMERS Ventures, BDC, Aurora Innovation as well as leading AI researchers Geoffrey Hinton, Fei-Fei Li, Pieter Abbeel, Sanja Fidler and others.

Urtasun described Waabi, which currently employs 40 people and operates in Toronto and California, as the culmination of her life’s work to bring commercially viable self-driving technology to society. The name of the company —  Waabi means “she has vision” in Ojibwe and “simple” in Japanese —  hints at her approach and ambitions.

Autonomous vehicle startups that exist today use a combination of artificial intelligence algorithms and sensors to handle the tasks of driving that humans do such as detecting and understanding objects and making decisions based on that information to safely navigate a lonely road or a crowded highway. Beyond those basics are a variety of approaches, including within AI.

Most self-driving vehicle developers use a traditional form of AI. However, the traditional approach limits the power of AI, Urtasun said, adding that developers must manually tune the software stack, a complex and time-consuming task. The upshot, Urtasun says: Autonomous vehicle development has slowed and the limited commercial deployments that do exist operate in small and simple operational domains because scaling is so costly and technically challenging.

“Working in this field for so many years and, in particular, the industry for the past four years, it became more and more clear along the way that there is a need for a new approach that is different from the traditional approach that most companies are taking today,” said Urtasun, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Vector Institute for AI.

Some developers do use deep neural nets, a sophisticated form of artificial intelligence algorithms that allows a computer to learn by using a series of connected networks to identify patterns in data. However, developers typically wall off the deep nets to handle a specific problem and use a machine learning and rules-based algorithms to tie into the broader system.

Deep nets have their own set of problems. A long-standing argument is that can’t be used with any reliability in autonomous vehicles in part because of the “black box” effect, in which the how and the why the AI solved a particular task is not clear. That is a problem for any self-driving startup that wants to be able verify and validate its system. It is also difficult to incorporate any prior knowledge about the task that the developer is trying to solve, like say driving. Finally, deep nets require an immense amount of data to learn.

Urtasun says she solved these lingering problems around deep nets by combining them with probabilistic inference and complex optimization, which she describes as a family of algorithms. When combined, the developer can trace back the decision process of the AI system and incorporate prior knowledge so they don’t have to teach the AI system everything from scratch. The final piece is a closed loop simulator that will allow the Waabi team to test at scale common driving scenarios and safety-critical edge cases.

Waabi will still have a physical fleet of vehicles to test on public roads. However, the simulator will allow the company to rely less on this form of testing. “We can even prepare for new geographies before we even drive there,” Urtasun said. “That’s a huge benefit in terms of the scaling curve.”

Urtasun’s vision and intent isn’t to take this approach and disrupt the ecosystem of OEMs, hardware and compute suppliers, but to be a player within it. That might explain the backing of Aurora, a startup that is developing its own self-driving stack that it hopes to first deploy in logistics such as long-haul trucking.

“This was the moment to really do something different,” Urtasun said. “The field is in need of a diverse set of approaches to solve this and it became very clear that this was the way to go.”

Tiger Global leads $30M investment into Briq, a fintech for the construction industry

By Mary Ann Azevedo

Briq, which has developed a fintech platform used by the construction industry, has raised $30 million in a Series B funding round led by Tiger Global Management.

The financing is among the largest Series B fundraises by a construction software startup, according to the company, and brings Briq’s total raised to $43 million since its January 2018 inception. Existing backers Eniac Ventures and Blackhorn Ventures also participated in the round.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy is a former executive at construction tech giant Procore (which recently went public and has a market cap of $10.4 billion) and Canadian software giant CMiC. Wall Street veteran Ron Goldshmidt is co-founder and COO.

Briq describes its offering as a financial planning and workflow automation platform that “drastically reduces” the time to run critical financial processes, while increasing the accuracy of forecasts and financial plans.

Briq has developed a toolbox of proprietary technology that it says allows it to extract and manipulate financial data without the use of APIs. It also has developed construction-specific data models that allows it to build out projections and create models of how much a project might cost, and how much could conceivably be made. Currently, Briq manages or forecasts about $30 billion in construction volume.

Specifically, Briq has two main offerings: Briq’s Corporate Performance Management (CPM) platform, which models financial outcomes at the project and corporate level and BriqCash, a construction-specific banking platform for managing invoices and payments. 

Put simply, Briq aims to allow contractors “to go from plan to pay” in one platform with the goal of solving the age-old problem of construction projects (very often) going over budget. Its longer-term, ambitious mission is to “manage 80% of the money workflows in construction within 10 years.”

The company’s strategy, so far, seems to be working.

From January 2020 to today, ARR has climbed by 200%, according to Hamdy. Briq currently has about 100 employees, compared to 35 a year ago.

Briq has 150 customers, and serves general and specialty contractors from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue.  They include Cafco Construction Management, WestCor Companies and Choate Construction and Harper Construction. The company is currently focused on contractors in North America but does have long-term plans to address larger international markets, Hamdy told TechCrunch.  

Some context

Hamdy came up with the idea for Santa Barbara, California-based Briq after realizing the vast amount of inefficiencies on the financial side of the construction industry. His goal was to do for construction financials what Procore did to document management, and PlanGrid to construction drawing. He started Briq with his own cash, amassed through secondary sales as Procore climbed the ranks of startups to become a construction industry unicorn.

Briq CEO and co-founder Bassem Hamdy. Image Credits: Briq

“I wanted to figure out how to bring the best of fintech into a construction industry that really guesses every month what the financial outcomes are for projects,” Hamdy told me at the time of the company’s last raise – a $10 million Series A led by Blackhorn Ventures announced in May of 2020. “Getting a handle on financial outcomes is really hard. The vast majority of the time, the forecasted cost to completion is plain wrong. By a lot.”

In fact, according to McKinsey, an astounding 80 percent of projects run over budget, resulting in significant waste and profit loss.

So at the end of a project, contractors often find themselves having doled out more money and resources than originally planned. This can lead to negative cash flow and profit loss. Briq’s platform aims to help contractors identify outliers, and which projects are more at risk.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Briq has proven to be “extremely valuable” to contractors, Hamdy said.

“In an industry where margins are so thin, we have given contractors the ability to truly understand where they stand on cash, profit and labor,” he added.

99 minutos, Mexico’s last mile delivery startup, raises a $40M Series B

By Marcella McCarthy

In 2014 Alexis Patjane was at a local hookah bar in Mexico City with some friends and the bar ran out of tobacco. They thought maybe they could buy some online and have it delivered to the bar in real-time, but it turns out that service didn’t exist.

At the time, Patjane was running a food truck-making business, which was responsible for about 80% of all the food trucks in Mexico, so he had experience doing business in the region.

A couple of weeks later, to solve the instant delivery problem he had faced at the hookah bar, Patjane launched 99 minutos, a website that sold products and delivered them within 99 minutes, hence the name.

Today, 99 minutos announced a $40 million Series B from Prosus and Kaszek Ventures which it plans to use to grow its business in Latin America. 

The company currently operates within 40 major markets across Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Peru and offers four services: less than 99 minutes delivery, same-day delivery, next-day delivery, and CO2-free delivery. 

What started as an e-commerce company with fast delivery quickly became a last-mile delivery service for other e-commerce companies.

“We started to build the API connections and plug-ins, and any e-commerce could add our delivery service to their business,” Patjane told TechCrunch.

99 minutos makes money by charging the customer a flat fee for delivery and then offering the driver a flat rate as well, but today, the volume is so large on each route, that it’s become very lucrative.

“We ship about 60-80 packages per route,” Patjane said, and from the consumer’s perspective, the delivery app works similarly to Waze. “You can pause the delivery, you can change the address. You can say, “Oh, I’m not at home, I’m at the Starbucks on the corner, can you drop it off there?”’ he added.

Patjane said that initially, the company offered delivery only within Mexico City, but it quickly grew to offer its services between cities and now operates between 21 cities in Mexico.

“E-commerce is growing quickly in Latin America, but it is still [the] early days. E-commerce penetration in Latin America is at 6%, while China is reaching 30% and the U.S. is at 20%,” the company said in a statement.

“When we hear big e-commerce players saying that 99 minutos is ‘their most reliable partner’ and that they are ‘the provider with the most potential,’ it tells us that the team is executing extremely well and is on a path to disrupt e-commerce delivery in Latin America,” said Banafsheh Fathieh, Head of Americas Investments at Prosus Ventures.

Part of the funds will also be to speed up their city-to-city deliveries. “We’ll be doing same day [delivery] from city to city and will be using small aircraft to connect the cities,” Patjane said.

Google’s Gradient Ventures leads $8.2M Series A for Vault Platform’s misconduct reporting SaaS

By Natasha Lomas

Fixing workplace misconduct reporting is a mission that’s snagged London-based Vault Platform backing from Google’s AI focused fund, Gradient Ventures, which is the lead investor in an $8.2 million Series A that’s being announced today.

Other investors joining the round are Illuminate Financial, along with existing investors including Kindred Capital and Angular Ventures. Its $4.2M seed round was closed back in 2019.

Vault sells a suite of SaaS tools to enterprise-sized or large/scale-up companies to support them to pro-actively manage internal ethics and integrity issues. As well as tools for staff to report issues, data and analytics is baked into the platform — so it can support with customers’ wider audit and compliance requirements.

In an interview with TechCrunch, co-founder and CEO Neta Meidav said that as well as being wholly on board with the overarching mission to upgrade legacy reporting tools like hotlines provided to staff to try to surface conduct-related workplace risks (be that bullying and harassment; racism and sexism; or bribery, corruption and fraud), as you might expect Gradient Ventures was interested in the potential for applying AI to further enhance Vault’s SaaS-based reporting tool.

A feature of its current platform, called ‘GoTogether’, consists of an escrow system that allows users to submit misconduct reports to the relevant internal bodies but only if they are not the first or only person to have made a report about the same person — the idea being that can help encourage staff (or outsiders, where open reporting is enabled) to report concerns they may otherwise hesitate to, for various reasons.

Vault now wants to expand the feature’s capabilities so it can be used to proactively surface problematic conduct that may not just relate to a particular individual but may even affect a whole team or division — by using natural language processing to help spot patterns and potential linkages in the kind of activity being reported.

“Our algorithms today match on an alleged perpetrator’s identity. However many events that people might report on are not related to a specific person — they can be more descriptive,” explains Meidav. “For example if you are experiencing some irregularities in accounting in your department, for example, and you’re suspecting that there is some sort of corruption or fraudulent activity happening.”

“If you think about the greatest [workplace misconduct] disasters and crises that happened in recent years — the Dieselgate story at Volkswagen, what happened in Boeing — the common denominator in all these cases is that there’s been some sort of a serious ethical breach or failure which was observed by several people within the organization in remote parts of the organization. And the dots weren’t connected,” she goes on. “So the capacity we’re currently building and increasing — building upon what we already have with GoTogether — is the ability to connect on these repeated events and be able to connect and understand and read the human input. And connect the dots when repeated events are happening — alerting companies’ boards that there is a certain ‘hot pocket’ that they need to go and investigate.

“That would save companies from great risk, great cost, and essentially could prevent huge loss. Not only financial but reputational, sometimes it’s even loss to human lives… That’s where we’re getting to and what we’re aiming to achieve.”

There is the question of how defensible Vault’s GoTogether feature is — how easily it could be copied — given you can’t patent an idea. So baking in AI smarts may be a way to layer added sophistication to try to maintain a competitive edge.

“There’s some very sophisticated, unique technology there in the backend so we are continuing to invest in this side of our technology. And Gradient’s investment and the specific we’re receiving from Google now will only increase that element and that side of our business,” says Meidav when we ask about defensibility.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Gradient Ventures founder and managing partner, Anna Patterson, added: “Vault tackles an important space with an innovative and timely solution. Vault’s application provides organizations with a data-driven approach to tackling challenges like occupational fraud, bribery or corruption incidents, safety failures and misconduct. Given their impressive team, technology, and customer traction, they are poised to improve the modern workplace.”

The London-based startup was only founded in 2018 — and while it’s most keen to talk about disrupting legacy hotline systems, which offer only a linear and passive conduit for misconduct reporting, there are a number of other startups playing in the same space. Examples include the likes of LA-based AllVoices, YC-backed WhispliHootsworth and Spot to name a few.

Competition seems likely to continue to increase as regulatory requirements around workplace reporting keep stepping up.

The incoming EU Whistleblower Protection Directive is one piece of regulation Vault expects will increase demand for smarter compliance solutions — aka “TrustTech”, as it seeks to badge it — as it will require companies of more than 250 employees to have a reporting solution in place by the end of December 2021, encouraging European businesses to cast around for tools to help shrink their misconduct-related risk.

She also suggests a platform solution can help bridge gaps between different internal teams that may need to be involved in addressing complaints, as well as helping to speed up internal investigations by offering the ability to chat anonymously with the original reporter.

Meidav also flags the rising attention US regulators are giving to workplace misconduct reporting — noting some recent massive awards by the SEC to external whistleblowers, such as the $28M paid out to a single whistleblower earlier this year (in relation to the Panasonic Avionics consultant corruption case).

She also argues that growing numbers of companies going public (such as via the SPAC trend, where there will have been reduced regulatory scrutiny ahead of the ‘blank check’ IPO) raises reporting requirements generally — meaning, again, more companies will need to have in place a system operated by a third party which allows anonymous and non-anonymous reporting. (And, well, we can only speculate whether companies going public by SPAC may be in greater need of misconduct reporting services vs companies that choose to take a more traditional and scrutinized route to market… )

“Just a few years back I had to convince investors that this category it really is a category — and fast forward to 2021, congratulations! We have a market here. It’s a growing category and there is competition in this space,” says Meidav.

“What truly differentiates Vault is that we did not just focus on digitizing an old legacy process. We focused on leveraging technology to truly empower more misconduct to surface internally and for employees to speak up in ways that weren’t available for them before. GoTogether is truly unique as well as the things that we’re doing on the operational side for a company — such as collaboration.”

She gives an example of how a customer in the oil and gas sector configured the platform to make use of an anonymous chat feature in Vault’s app so they could provide employees with a secure direct-line to company leadership.

“They’ve utilizing the anonymous chat that the app enables for people to have a direct line to leadership,” she says. “That’s incredible. That is such a progress, forward looking way to be utilizing this tool.”

Vault Platform’s suite of tools include an employee app and a Resolution Hub for compliance, HR, risk and legal teams (Image credits: Vault Platform)

Meidav says Vault has around 30 customers at this stage, split between the US and EU — its core regions of focus.

And while its platform is geared towards enterprises, its early customer base includes a fair number of scale-ups — with familiar names like Lemonade, Airbnb, Kavak, G2 and OVO Energy on the list.

Scale ups may be natural customers for this sort of product given the huge pressures that can be brought to bear upon company culture as a startup switches to expanding headcount very rapidly, per Meidav.

“They are the early adopters and they are also very much sensitive to events such as these kind of [workplace] scandals as it can impact them greatly… as well as the fact that when a company goes through a hyper growth — and usually you see hyper growth happening in tech companies more than in any other type of sector — hyper growth is at time when you really, as management, as leadership, it’s really important to safeguard your culture,” she suggests.

“Because it changes very, very quickly and these changes can lead to all sorts of things — and it’s really important that leadership is on top of it. So when a company goes through hyper growth it’s an excellent time for them to incorporate a tool such as Vault. As well as the fact that every company that even thinks of an IPO in the coming months or years will do very well to put a tool like Vault in place.”

Expanding Vault’s own team is also on the cards after this Series A close, as it guns for the next phase of growth for its own business. Presumably, though, it’s not short of a misconduct reporting solution.

TezLab CEO Ben Schippers to discuss the Tesla effect and the next wave of EV startups at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

By Kirsten Korosec

As Tesla sales have risen, interest in the company has exploded, prompting investment and interest in the automotive industry, as well as the startup world.

TezLab, a free app that’s like a Fitbit for a Tesla vehicle, is just one example of the numerous startups that have sprung up in the past few years as electric vehicles have started to make the tiniest of dents in global sales. Now, as Ford, GM, Volvo, Hyundai along with newcomers Rivian, Fisker and others launch electric vehicles into the marketplace, more startups are sure to follow.

Ben Schippers, the co-founder and CEO of TezLab, is one of two early-stage founders who will join us at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 to talk about their startups and the opportunities cropping up in this emerging age of EVs. The six-person team behind TezLab was born out of HappyFunCorp, a software engineering shop that builds apps for mobile, web, wearables and Internet of Things devices for clients that include Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, as well as an array of startups.

HFC’s engineers, including Schippers, who also co-founded HFC, were attracted to Tesla  because of its techcentric approach and one important detail: the Tesla API endpoints are accessible to outsiders. The Tesla API is technically private. But it exists allowing the Tesla’s app to communicate with the cars to do things like read battery charge status and lock doors. When reverse-engineered, it’s possible for a third-party app to communicate directly with the API.

Schippers’ experience extends beyond scaling up TezLab. Schippers consults and works with companies focused on technology and human interaction, with a sub-focus in EV.

The list of speakers at our 2021 event is growing by the day and includes Motional’s president and CEO Karl Iagnemma and Aurora co-founder and CEO Chris Urmson, who will discuss the past, present and future of AVs. On the electric front is Mate Rimac, the founder of Rimac Automobili, who will talk about scaling his startup from a one-man enterprise in a garage to more than 1,000 people and contracts with major automakers.

We also recently announced a panel dedicated to China’s robotaxi industry, featuring three female leaders from Chinese AV startups: AutoX’s COO Jewel Li, Huan Sun, general manager of Momenta Europe with Momenta, and WeRide’s VP of Finance Jennifer Li.

Other guests include, GM’s VP of Global Innovation Pam Fletcher, Scale AI CEO Alexandr Wang, Joby Aviation founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman (whose special purpose acquisition company just merged with Joby), investors Clara Brenner of Urban Innovation Fund, Quin Garcia of Autotech Ventures and Rachel Holt of Construct Capital, and Zoox co-founder and CTO Jesse Levinson.

And we may even have one more surprise — a classic TechCrunch stealth company reveal to close the show.

Don’t wait to book your tickets to TC Sessions: Mobility as prices go up at our virtual door.

Rebranded Toyota Ventures invests $300 million in emerging tech and carbon neutrality 

By Rebecca Bellan

Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s standalone venture capital fund, has dropped the “AI” and is reborn as, simply, Toyota Ventures. The fund is commemorating its new identity by investing an additional $300 million in emerging technologies and carbon neutrality via two early-stage funds: the Toyota Ventures Frontier Fund and the Toyota Ventures Climate Fund. 

The introduction of these two new funds, each worth $150 million, brings Toyota Ventures’ total assets under management to over $500 million. With the new capital infusion into the Frontier Fund comes an expansion of Toyota Ventures’ core thesis, which previously focused on AI, autonomy, mobility, robotics and the cloud, and now is adding smart cities, digital health, fintech and energy. So while Toyota Ventures’ investment approach isn’t changing, it’s broadening the scope of startups it will consider investing in. 

“AI is kind of shrinking as a proportion of everything,” Jim Adler, founding managing director of Toyota Ventures, told TechCrunch. “The first mission of the Frontier Fund has always been to discover what’s next for Toyota. Toyota pivoted to cars in the 1930s, and Toyota will grow to other businesses in the future. Startups are experiments in the marketplace, and this is a way for us to understand and get comfortable with where innovations are coming from.” 

Toyota as a global company has more than 370,000 employees that cover a range of business units in which the company at large stands to benefit from investing, such as financial technology. The Frontier Fund is a step outside of mobility. It not only seeks to bring emerging tech to market, but it also wants to bring new innovations onboard, whether as a customer or an acquisition, according to Adler. 

“I think the vision of the company really is that machines are here to stay, they amplify the human experience, and Toyota understands how machines amplify humans really well for the benefit of society, which sounds incredibly corny, but the company really believes that,” said Adler.

By that same token, the new Climate Fund seeks to invest in startups that can help Toyota accelerate its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The company has been investing in hydrogen for years, including a recent partnership with Japanese fuel company ENEOS, but it’s open to whatever technology will help achieve carbon neutrality, according to Adler.

“We think renewable energies will play a role,” said Adler. “Hydrogen production, storage distribution and utilization will play a role. We think carbon capture and storage will play a role. We’re not going to get dogmatic about hydrogen because we’ve been at it for decades and maybe things will change. Hydrogen hasn’t been crowdsourced across the startup community because there just wasn’t a market for it, but I think the market may be emerging.”

The fund is accepting online pitches on its website from entrepreneurs seeking early-stage funding. On Thursday, Toyota Ventures also announced it would be expanding its team and working with a new Advisor Network as a resource for founders looking for guidance on anything from product development to diversity and recruitment. 

“Toyota Ventures has been an invaluable partner for Boxbot since they invested in our seed round in 2018,” said Austin Oehlerking, co-founder and CEO of Boxbot, in a statement. “They have been instrumental in helping us to navigate complicated, existential challenges on our journey from concept to product/market fit. Jim and the team really understand how corporate venture capital should function in order to successfully partner with startups.” 

Adler says he and his team come from an entrepreneurial background, so they understand what it’s like on the other side of the table. Toyota Ventures’ focuses on early-stage startups because that’s where it believes some of the most interesting innovations come from. 

“I’m a big believer that early-stage venture capital is a telescope into the future,” said Adler. “I think we can actually find those incredibly valuable innovations that make this all worthwhile.”

3 lessons we learned after raising $6.3M from 50 investors

By Annie Siebert
Henry Shapiro Contributor
Henry Shapiro is the co-founder of Reclaim.ai, an intelligent calendar assistant platform used daily by over 4,000 companies. Prior to founding Reclaim, Henry led product and marketing at New Relic.

It was August 2019, and the fundraising process was not going well.

My co-founder and I had left our product management jobs at New Relic several months prior, deciding to finally plunge into building Reclaim after nearly a year of late nights and weekends spent prototyping and iterating on ideas. We had bits and pieces of a product, but the majority of it was what we might call “slideware.”

When you can’t raise big on the vision, you need to raise big on the proof. And the proof comes from building, learning, iterating and getting traction with your first few hundred users.

When we spoke to many other founders, they all told us the same thing: Go raise, raise big, and raise now. So we did that, even though we were puzzled as to why anyone would give us money with little more than a slide deck to our names. We spent nearly three months pitching dozens of VCs, hoping to raise $3 million to $4 million in a seed round to hire our founding team and build the product out.

Initially, we were excited. There was lots of inbound interest, and we were starting to hear a lot of crazy numbers getting thrown around by a lot of Important People. We thought for sure we were maybe a week away from term sheets. We celebrated preemptively. How could it possibly be this easy?

Then in July, almost in an instant, everything started to dry up. The verbal offers for term sheets didn’t materialize into real offers. We had term sheets, but they were from investors that didn’t seem to care much about what we were building or what problems we wanted to solve. We quickly realized that we hadn’t really built momentum around the product or the vision, but were instead caught up in what we later learned to be “deal flow.”

Basically, investors were interested because other investors were interested. And once enough of them weren’t, nobody was.

Fortunately, as I write this today, Reclaim has raised a total of $6.3 million on great terms across a group of incredible investors and partners. But it wasn’t easy, and it required us to embrace our failure and learn three important lessons that I believe every founder should consider before they decide to go out and pitch investors.

Lesson 1: Build big before you raise big

In 2019, we were hunting for what some referred to as a “mango seed” — that is, a seed round that was large enough that it was perceptibly closer to a light Series A financing. Being pre-product at the time, we had to lean on our experience and our vision to drive conviction and urgency among investors. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t enough. Investors either felt that our experience was a bad fit for the space we were entering (productivity/scheduling) or that our vision wasn’t compelling enough to merit investment on the terms we wanted.

When we did get offers, they involved swallowing some pretty bitter pills: We would be forced to take bad terms that were overly dilutive (at least from our perspective), work with an investor who we didn’t think had high conviction in our product strategy, or relinquish control in the company from an extremely early stage. None of these seemed like good options.

Hormonal health is a massive opportunity: Where are the unicorns?

By Natasha Mascarenhas

Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse, but Elizabeth Ruzzo says she experienced it firsthand after telling a doctor that she suffered from suicidal ideation after taking birth control pills.

Hormonal health sits at the center of conversations around personalized medicine and women’s health: By 2025, women’s health could be a $50 billion industry, and by 2026, digital health more broadly is estimated to hit $221 billion.

Ruzzo’s doctor told her there was no connection between birth control and self-harm, but she decided to stop taking the pill to see if her mental health improved. When it did, Ruzzo grasped the disconnect between women’s unique hormonal makeup and blanket-statement practices from medicine today.

Her realization led her to found Adyn Health, a startup that proactively helps women make health decisions that complement their hormonal state and background. The company started with, of course, helping people pick more personalized birth control.

Ruzzo is part of a group of growing entrepreneurs who are betting that hormonal health is the key wedge into the digital health boom. Hormones are fluctuating, ever-evolving and diverse — but these founders say they’re also key to solving many health conditions that disproportionately impact women, from diabetes to infertility to mental health challenges.

Many believe it’s that complexity that underscores the opportunity. Hormonal health sits at the center of conversations around personalized medicine and women’s health: By 2025, women’s health could be a $50 billion industry, and by 2026, digital health more broadly is estimated to hit $221 billion.

Still, as funding for women’s health startups drops and stigma continues to impact where venture dollars go, it’s unclear whether the sector will remain in its infancy or hit a true inflection point.

The future is proactive

Ruzzo views Adyn as a precision medicine startup. Its main product is an at-home test that tracks hormone levels, assesses genetic risk for specific side effects, and then gives recommendations for which birth control methods best suits the customer with the fewest side effects.

By Ruzzo’s estimates, 98% of sexually active women use birth control for 30 years of their life. That sort of lifetime value proposition made the company look like a sweet deal to founders, and Adyn raised a $2.5 million seed in April 2021 in a round co-led by Lux Capital and M13.

The moonshot, though, is using that as a way to become a trusted partner in a woman’s life, helping understand baseline hormone levels throughout those 30 years.

“My hope is that we can use precision medicine approaches, including looking at genetic markers to identify reliable diagnostic criteria, that can remove that uncertainty and pain and diagnostic odyssey that people have to go through,” Ruzzo said.

If Adyn becomes a trusted partner with teenage women, it could reach a point where it can detect changes in hormone levels over time.

“The hormone reference ranges that are used [in labs] are too broad to be personalized, let alone prescriptive,” she said. “And so what we’re hoping to do is correct for things that we know affect hormone levels like age, weight, ethnicity and compare you to your own expectations.”

If the first wave of digital health was a company like Ro, which answers consumers when they have a condition such as erectile dysfunction or hair loss, the second wave will look more like Adyn, which helps consumers navigate their health before getting diagnosed with a condition or experiencing issues.

The industry standard is still to wait for consumers to realize they have a condition, and then go to the doctor to manage their symptoms or look for a cure. A new startup that recently graduated from Y Combinator is finding its way into hormonal health through that angle.

One-tenth of all women are impacted by a hormonal condition

Veera Health is a startup that wants to help women in India manage polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. The hormonal condition can cause irregular periods, infertility or gestational diabetes in women, as well as acne, weight gain and excessive hair growth. Plus, PCOS is far from rare, impacting one in 10 women.

Frst and Fabric Ventures announce fellowship program for crypto entrepreneurs

By Romain Dillet

VC funds Frst and Fabric Ventures are teaming up to create Le Crypto Fellowship. With this program, the two firms want to find the next 10 crypto entrepreneurs in France. And they think they might foster the most promising crypto startups if they don’t have any preconceived idea and team yet.

As Pierre Entremont from Frst writes in a Medium post, there are a lot of opportunities if you want to build the next crypto success, but few entrepreneurs are actively looking at this space.

“Nearly all crypto developers and entrepreneurs are already rich and therefore don’t step up their ambition,” he writes.

Blockchain development and DeFi projects are nearly always open source. Learning resources are available for free around the web. So it’s not that hard to get started and build a prototype, but you have to get started. Frst and Fabric Ventures think they can create the right framework to incentivize the next generation of entrepreneurs.

If you get accepted into the program, the two VC firms will hand you €100,000 in exchange for 7% of your company. Basically, this should cover one year of salary for one person in France with a salary of €50,000, €21,000 in employer contributions and €29,000 in expenses. You can be based in another country as long as it’s in the same time zone and you incorporate your company in France.

This way, you get to play around and think about an ambitious idea without feeling any financial pressure. You’ll join a Discord channel with other fellows and you’ll attend weekly Zoom meetings during the first few months. After that, Fabric Ventures and Frst partners will schedule regular office hours with you to check in on your progress.

If you end up creating a proper company and taking your idea to the next level, the fellowship may later ask to invest an additional €700,000 for a 20% stake in the company.

Candidates can apply until June 15. Le Crypto Fellowship isn’t looking for people who already have an idea or are only available part-time. But if you want to join as a team of two or three, you can. Instead of €100,000, you’ll get €200,000 or €300,000. Working as a team will probably help you remain motivated over the long haul.

This isn’t the first startup mentoring program. The Thiel Fellowship is arguably the most well-known. But Le Crypto Fellowship doesn’t limit itself to college dropouts and has a different focus. It’s going to be interesting to see if it pans out and if the VC firms will have a second, a third and a fourth batch down the road.

Realtime Robotics raises a $31M Series A

By Brian Heater

Boston-based Realtime Robotics this morning announced a $31.4 million round. The funding is part of the $11.7 million Series A the company announced all the way back in late 2019. Investors include HAHN Automation, SAIC Capital Management, Soundproof Ventures , Heroic Ventures, SPARX Asset Management, Omron Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Scrum Ventures and Duke Angels.

Realtime is one of a number of startups building control on top of industrial robotics. Specifically, the startup looks to help companies deploy systems with limited programming, offering adaptable controls that work for multiple systems at once.

This round, which nearly doubles the company’s existing funding, will be used to accelerate its product development and extend its offering to more markets, globally. It comes as interest in robotics have ramped up amid the global pandemic.

“This investment by some of the world’s leading manufacturers and automation providers stands as a testament to our ability to dramatically improve the value proposition for robotic implementations,” CEO Peter Howard says in a release. “Having already realized early deployment success, a broad spectrum of customers and partners are working closely with us to refine features and user experiences, readying our technology for rollouts in their engineering, factory and warehouse operations.”

The company’s offerings serve a wide range of different industrial robotics tasks, including pick and place machines, packaging and palletizing boxes.

 

Video e-learning platform for MENA, Almentor, closes $6.5M Series B led by Partech

By Tage Kene-Okafor

There are more than 400 million Arabic speakers globally and that number isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Arabic, to most people, is a tough language even to those who speak it. According to Duolingo, someone fluent in Egyptian Arabic might not fully understand Yemeni Arabic speakers because of the vast difference in dialect.

While individuals can easily navigate dialects, it can be relatively hard for them to find tailored Arabic content essential for everyday life.

Dr Ihab Fikry and Ibrahim Kamel founded Almentor.net in 2016 as an online video learning platform to compensate for this lack of online learning content for Arabic speakers. In collaboration with hundreds of leaders, educators, and experts, the platform offers courses and talks in various fields like health, humanities, technology, entrepreneurship, business management, lifestyle, drama, sports, corporate communication, and digital media.

In 2016, Almentor closed a $3.5 million seed round and two years ago raised $4.5 million Series A led by Egypt’s Sawari Ventures. With this Series B investment, the Dubai-based edtech company has raised $14.5 million in total. San Francisco and Paris-based VC firm Partech led the financing round with participation from Sawari Ventures, fellow Series A investor Egypt Ventures, and Sango Capital.

Almentor provides Arab learners with the necessary skills crucially needed to advance their professional careers and personal lives. The platform claims to have the biggest continuous learning library in the region and one of the biggest worldwide. With offices in Dubai, Cairo, and Saudi Arabia, its video content is developed in-house and made in Arabic and English.

“The vision and reason behind starting Almentor is we understand that in our region of more than 100 million people, of which 90% cannot properly learn with any other language other than Arabic,” Fikry said to TechCrunch. “So we wanted to have a cutting-edge state of the art platform that will change people’s ideology and help them be objective, and focus based on topics that can be taught as prodigious learning.”

For first-time products like Almentor, it can be hard to get both investors and customers on board. According to CEO Fikry, the first challenge was to convince the investment community in the MENA region that Almentor was creating a new industry in video e-learning that “had lots of potential to power tools in the region.”

Almentor’s business is an intersection of education, media, and technology. Its offerings are dissected into three: the flagship B2C product, a white-label B2B model for blue-chip companies, and the last, which Fikry calls the ‘special project’ for governmental bodies.

For its B2C product, Almentor sells courses to users for $20-$30 of which they get to keep for a lifetime. Fikry says that in June, the company is planning to introduce a subscription-based model where users can have unlimited access to all of its 12,000 video content for a fee to its more than 1 million registered users.

Almentor

The B2B model is where Almentor opens its library to companies to customize their content for employees. These videos are mainly tutorials or training needed to thrive at work, and since 2016, Almentor has executed 78 deals with partner companies

The special project’s model highlights Almentor’s work with the government. One time, the company had a partnership with the Egyptian government to upskill the country’s movie industry. It has completed 11 more similar special projects since launching five years ago. 

Across all three models, Fikry says Almentor has successfully delivered more than 2 million learning experiences. With this investment, the company wants to improve content production and quality and educate people in the MENA region on why they need the product.

“We are now leading the continuous video learning industry in the Arab region, and we have a responsibility that goes beyond our ambitions for Almentor. Our responsibility now is to work unceasingly to improve the industry as a whole in the Arab region, and this can only be achieved through gaining the confidence of the Arab learners in the value, professionalism and impartiality of the content provided by the platform and working in line with the global learning trends.”

Speaking on the investment for Partech, general partner Cyril Collon said: “Since our first interaction, we have been very impressed by Ihab and Ibrahim, two fantastic mission-driven entrepreneurs who have been executing on a bold vision since 2016, and who built the leading Arabic self-learning go-to content provider in the Middle East and Africa.  We are looking forward to supporting the company in its next phase of growth to serve the 430 million Arabic-speaking population and expand access to on-demand cutting-edge personal learning & developments options.”

Jai Kisan, a fintech startup aimed at rural India, raises $30 million

By Manish Singh

Jai Kisan, an Indian startup that is attempting to bring financial services to rural India, where commercial banks have a single-digit penetration, said on Monday it has raised $30 million in a new financing round as it looks to scale its business.

Hundreds of millions of people in India today live in rural areas. Most of them don’t have a credit score. The professions they work on — largely farming — aren’t considered a business by most lenders in India. These farmers and other professionals also don’t have a documented credit history, which puts them in a risky category for banks to grant them a loan.

Much of the credit these people do raise ends up getting invested in unproductive usage, which leads to higher interest and default rates.

Three-year-old Mumbai-headquartered Jai Kisan is attempting to address this by treating farmers and other similar professionals as businesses instead of consumers.

The startup has developed its own system — which it calls Bharat Khata — that is helping individuals and businesses get access to cheaper financing and ensures that the money they raise is being used for agri-inputs and equipment and other income generating purposes and enablement of rural commerce transactions.

Arjun Ahluwalia, co-founder and chief executive of Jai Kisan, said financial services is crucial for these individuals as their entire economy depends on it. “The ability to buy now and pay later is how most people shop for things in India. Credit is an expectation by the Indian customer — it’s not a value added service,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

“If there is availability of formal financing to customers, it’s not just customer who does well. The entire ecosystem that revolves around that customer benefits,” he said, pointing to the rise of Bajaj Finance, which has helped several businesses flourish in India by giving credit to customers at the time of purchase, and Xiaomi, India’s largest smartphone vendor, which sells a large number of its devices to customers on monthly instalment plans.

Bharat Khata service, which was launched in April last year, captured more than $380 million of annualized GTV run-rate across over 25,000 storefronts by the financial year that ended in March this year, the startup said.

“Jai Kisan has financed over 15% of the transactions which portrays the monetizability and quality of commerce being captured. The ability to have visibility and virality of high-quality transactions has enabled Jai Kisan to scale business by over 50% in 3 months. The unprecedented growth trajectory stands testament to Jai Kisan’s capabilities to deploy capital efficiently by focusing on core customer credit needs,” the startup said.

The startup, which operates in eight Indian states in South India, is now looking to scale its presence across the country and also increase the headcount. On Monday, it said it had raised $30 million in a Series A round led by Mirae Asset, Syngenta Ventures, and existing investors Blume, Arkam Ventures, NABVENTURES, Prophetic Ventures and Better Capital.

An unspecified amount of the financing was raised as debt from Blacksoil, Stride Ventures, and Trifecta Capital.

“Jai Kisan is at the cusp of disrupting the rural financing industry and we’re glad to be a part of their growth story. Jai Kisan’s stellar growth, excellent asset quality and expanding footprint make them a highly differentiated player in the segment,” said Ashish Dave, chief executive of the India Venture Investments for the South Korean firm Mirae Asset.

“Mirae Asset has always believed in backing companies which aim to become category leaders which is evident from our other investments and we believe Jai Kisan is on the journey of doing so for rural finance,” he added.

Like most fintech startups, Jai Kisan has so far relied on its banking and other financial institutions to finance credit to businesses. The startup said it will now finance 20% of all loans by itself. Which is why it is also raising some money in debt in the new round.

Extra Crunch roundup: first-check myths, Miami relocation checklist, standout SaaSy startups

By Walter Thompson

This may seem like a great time to launch a SaaS startup, but the landscape is crowded with well-designed applications that promise “blazingly fast and delightfully simple” experiences, according to seed-stage investor John Chen of Fika Ventures.

Most SaaS startups will fail, but not because of a sour marketing campaign or server downtime. The majority of these companies will fall victim to what Chen calls “the myth of frictionless onboarding.”

Despite the hype about ease of use, enterprise companies always ask customers to abandon familiar tools so they can learn something new.

“Just like with a new fitness program, participants feel good after completing the workout, but it takes a lot of activation energy to start and hard work to get there,” Chen notes.


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Instead of putting the onus on customers to roll up their sleeves, he suggests that SaaS startups learn from cryptocurrency culture and find ways to “incentivize users to do the necessary work to have the right experience.”

But how do you encourage users to put in the time and effort required to produce an optimal customer experience?

“In a world where there is a surplus of alternatives for every job to be done, the scarce resource is not content, tooling, or hacks and tricks,” says Chen. “It’s attention.”

We’re off on Monday, May 31 in observance of Memorial Day; I hope you have a relaxing weekend!

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

Dismantling the myths around raising your first check

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Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

As startups and venture capital grow in tandem, fundraising has gone from a formal affair on Sand Hill Road to a process that can happen anywhere from Twitter to Zoom.

While fundraising may no longer require a trip to California, it might depend on whether you got an invite to a private audio app. And while you may not need to be an insider, second-time founders — largely male and white — still have a competitive advantage.

The growing complexity of fundraising has the opportunity to make tech either inclusive or exclusive.

VC is the flashy gold medal, but the rapid growth of emerging fund managers means that a first check can be piecemealed together from a variety of different sources. The options for financing are seemingly endless: syndicates, public crowdfunding, VC firms, accelerators, debt financing, rolling funds, and, for the profitable few, bootstrapping.

Doximity’s S-1 may explain why healthcare exits are heating up

Telehealth startup Doximity filed to go public earlier today. Notably, the company has not fundraised since 2014, a year in which it attracted just under $82 million at a valuation of $355 million, per PitchBook data.

How has it managed to not raise money for so long? By generating lots of cash and profit over the years. Healthtech communications, it turns out, can be a lucrative endeavor.

What Vimeo’s growth, profits and value tell us about the online video market

Image Credits: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The spin-out of video platform Vimeo from IAC completed this week, and the smaller company is now trading as an independent entity under the ticker ‘VMEO’.

If you missed the news that the internet conglomerate was spinning out the video service, don’t feel bad; it slipped past many radars. But with the company now trading, our access to its historical results, and our minds still enthralled by YouTube’s recent financial performance for Alphabet, it’s worth taking a moment to digest the company’s health.

Flywire’s flotation suggests the IPO slowdown is behind us

The Flywire IPO is neat from a financial perspective and notable in that it’s a Boston exit as opposed to yet another New York or San Francisco-based flotation. It’s nice to see some other cities put points on the board.

But more than that, this IPO is a useful measuring stick for keeping tabs on the IPO market as a whole. This year and the last are shaping up to be key exit periods for startups and unicorns of all shapes and sizes; many a venture capital fund return rests on these public debuts.

Dear Sophie: Any unique immigration strategies for quick hiring?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie,

I do recruitment for tech startups. With a surge of VC investing, many startups are urgently hiring.

Which visas offer the quickest options for international talent? Are there any unique strategies that you would recommend we explore?

— Maverick in Milpitas

7 questions to ask before relocating your startup to Florida

a photo of an art deco style building in Miami with pastel gradient colors

Image Credits: Artur Debat (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Cities like Miami, Pittsburgh and Austin have been drawing talent and wealth from Silicon Valley for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend.

In recent months, many investors and entrepreneurs have noisily departed for Miami, citing the region’s favorable business climate and quality of life.

It’s always good to consider one’s options, but before booking a moving van for the Sunshine State — or any emerging tech hub, for that matter — here are some basic questions entrepreneurs should ask themselves.

Vise CEO Samir Vasavada and Sequoia’s Shaun Maguire break down the art of the pitch

Image Credits: Sequoia Capital / Wolfe + Von / TechCrunch

In just a few short years, Vise has gone from launching on the Disrupt Battlefield stage to a unicorn. Co-founders Samir Vasavada and Runik Mehrotra met Sequoia’s Shaun Maguire at an after-party at the event, and Maguire ended up leading a seed and Series A round while Sequoia led the Series B.

Last week, Vise raised its Series C of $65 million and was officially valued at $1 billion post-money.

We spoke to the pair about the early fundraising process for Vise, what Vasavada has learned about delivering a good fundraising pitch, and what stood out about the pitch and the product for Maguire.

Acorns’ SPAC listing depicts a consumer fintech business with a SaaSy revenue mix

Another day, another unicorn public offering.

On Thursday, it was Acorns, a consumer fintech service that blends saving and investing into a freemium product.

Acorns fits inside the larger savings-and-investing boom seen over the last four or five quarters as consumers buffeted by the economic changes brought on by COVID-19 turned to stashing cash and boosting their equities investing cadence.

By now this is old news, but we haven’t had a clear picture of the economics of consumer fintech startups accelerated by the pandemic. Now that Acorns has decided to list via a SPAC — more on that in a moment — we do.

Poor onboarding is the enemy of good hiring

Image of a person talking to two colleagues via videoconferencing.

Image Credits: Olga Strelnikova (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The world of hybrid work is here, and the usual 10-minute intro call, swag bag and first-day team lunch are just not enough to make your new employee feel welcome.

While many companies have found a way to interview and select candidates in a fully remote environment, few have spent time and resources on aligning the “pre-boarding” and onboarding process for the new hybrid world of work. Many employers still rely on old ways of welcoming new hires, despite our totally changed work environment.

It’s important to capitalize on candidates’ enthusiasm and eagerness from the moment the offer is signed instead of when they log in on Day One, because first impressions can make or break a candidate’s chances of staying at a company.

 

Kitt, an office outfitter as a service, raises $5M Seed round led by Barclay Ventures

By Mike Butcher

Landlords have sometimes looked on the tech-enabled spaces of the likes of WeWork and longed to be part of the cool kids — and attract that new wave of founders. Now a U.K. startup has come up with a way for landlords to do this directly.

Founded by Steve Coulson and Lucy Minton in 2018, U.K.-based Kitt has now raised $5 million (£3.6 million) in seed fundraising, taking the total amount raised by the business to $7.5 million. The round was led by Barclay Ventures.

Kitt says it provides a “fully customizable” workspace solution to tenants via its landlord partners. It connects landlords with tenants directly, then automates most of the traditional functions usually undertaken by office and building managers. The benefit for landlords is that it reduces void periods to up the yield from property.

It now counts companies like Oatly, Nested and PZ Cussons Beauty with their post-COVID office planning.

Spaces are visualized through a VR design process before being built out. Kitt’s mobile app then offers a range of on-demand services to tenants. Spaces get app-based entry systems, remote receptionists and security systems. Landlords can then offer a managed service to tenants, who can contract other suppliers through Kitt’s platform.

On the raise, founder Lucy Minton said: “We have experienced a 600% growth in revenue since August and we expect this growth to continue as offices navigate and understand the changing needs of their team … With flexibility top of the agenda, collaboration, creativity and innovation will be central to office design in a post-COVID world.”

She explained: “In short we have built a platform to allow us to operate any space of any size. We work with landlords essentially to repackage their space as a service provider. So from an operating model point of view, we can deliver space remotely into clients’ offices anywhere, and from a product point of view, everything is run through our space app.”

Investor and former CEO of Axel Springer Digital, Andreas Wiele, added: “By providing a bespoke solution for tenants, they can plan beyond the next six months and navigate their own version of the office of the future. For landlords, Kitt is offering a chance to market space in a new way that enables them to sell offices worth leaving home for.”

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