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3 ways the pandemic is transforming tech spending

By Walter Thompson
Eric Tan Contributor
Eric Tan is Senior Vice President of IT and Business Services Coupa, a leader in business spend management and a former Battery portfolio company.
Scott Goering Contributor
Scott Goering is VP of Business Development at Battery Ventures .

Ever since the pandemic hit the U.S. in full force last March, the B2B tech community keeps asking the same questions: Are businesses spending more on technology? What’s the money getting spent on? Is the sales cycle faster? What trends will likely carry into 2021?

Recently we decided to join forces to answer these questions. We analyzed data from the just-released Q4 2020 Outlook of the Coupa Business Spend Index (BSI), a leading indicator of economic growth, in light of hundreds of conversations we have had with business-tech buyers this year.

A former Battery Ventures portfolio company, Coupa* is a business spend-management company that has cumulatively processed more than $2 trillion in business spending. This perspective gives Coupa unique, real-time insights into tech spending trends across multiple industries.

Tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many startups are raising large rounds and even tapping public markets for capital.

Broadly speaking, tech spending is continuing despite the economic recession — which helps explain why many tech startups are raising large financing rounds and even tapping the public markets for capital. Here are our three specific takeaways on current tech spending:

Spending is shifting away from remote collaboration to SaaS and cloud computing

Tech spending ranks among the hottest boardroom topics today. Decisions that used to be confined to the CIO’s organization are now operationally and strategically critical to the CEO. Multiple reasons drive this shift, but the pandemic has forced businesses to operate and engage with customers differently, almost overnight. Boards recognize that companies must change their business models and operations if they don’t want to become obsolete. The question on everyone’s mind is no longer “what are our technology investments?” but rather, “how fast can they happen?”

Spending on WFH/remote collaboration tools has largely run its course in the first wave of adaptation forced by the pandemic. Now we’re seeing a second wave of tech spending, in which enterprises adopt technology to make operations easier and simply keep their doors open.

SaaS solutions are replacing unsustainable manual processes. Consider Rhode Island’s decision to shift from in-person citizen surveying to using SurveyMonkey. Many companies are shifting their vendor payments to digital payments, ditching paper checks entirely. Utility provider PG&E is accelerating its digital transformation roadmap from five years to two years.

The second wave of adaptation has also pushed many companies to embrace the cloud, as this chart makes clear:

Similarly, the difficulty of maintaining a traditional data center during a pandemic has pushed many companies to finally shift to cloud infrastructure under COVID. As they migrate that workload to the cloud, the pie is still expanding. Goldman Sachs and Battery Ventures data suggest $600 billion worth of disruption potential will bleed into 2021 and beyond.

In addition to SaaS and cloud adoption, companies across sectors are spending on technologies to reduce their reliance on humans. For instance, Tyson Foods is investing in and accelerating the adoption of automated technology to process poultry, pork and beef.

All companies are digital product companies now

Mention “digital product company” in the past, and we’d all think of Netflix. But now every company has to reimagine itself as offering digital products in a meaningful way.

Fantasy startup Esports One raises $4M more

By Anthony Ha

Esports One, a startup bringing the fantasy approach to esports, is announcing that it has raised an additional $4 million in funding.

When I first wrote about Esports One in April, co-founder and COO Sharon Winter described it as the first “all-in-one fantasy platform” in the esports world, allowing you to research players, create fantasy teams and watch games, with an initial focus on the North American and European divisions of League of Legends.

According to the Esports One team, creating this platform required building out a set of data and analytics products, as well as using computer vision technology that can track game activity (and update player stats) without relying on a publisher’s API.

The startup says its user base has been growing by more than 25% month-over-month. It may also have benefited from the pause in professional sports earlier this year, while CEO and co-founder Matt Gunnin told me recently that he also sees fantasy as a way to make video games accessible to a broader audience — he recalled one Esports One user who introduced his sister to League of Legends using the fantasy platform.

“I use the example of growing up and sitting there with my dad, watching a baseball game, he’s telling me everything that’s happening,” Gunnin said. “Now it’s the opposite — parents are sitting and watching their kids.”

Many parents, he suggested, are “never going to pick up a mouse and keyboard and play League of Legends,” but they might play the fantasy version: “That’s an entry point … if we can make it easily accessible to individuals both that are hardcore gamers playing video games and watching League of Legends their entire life, as well as someone who has no idea what’s going on.”

The new funding was led led by XSeed Capital, Eniac Ventures, and Chestnut Street Ventures, bringing Esports One to a total of $7.3 million raised. The company also recently signed a partnership deal with lifestyle company ESL Gaming.

Gunnin said the money will allow the company to grow its Bytes virtual currency, which players use to enter contests and buy customizations — starting next year, players will be able to spend real money to purchase Bytes. In addition, it’s working on native iOS and Android apps (Esports One is currently accessible via desktop and mobile web).

Gunnin and his team also plan to develop fantasy competitions for Rainbow Six: Siege, Rocket League, Valorant and Fortnite.

“As a fairly new player in the esports world, we’ve seen immense determination and grit from Matt, Sharon, and the whole Esports One team to grow into a household name,” said XSeed’s Damon Cronkey in a statement. “I’m excited to be partnering with a company that will deliver new perspectives and features to an evolving industry. We’re eager to see how Esports One grows in 2021.”

Helping big banks out-Affirm Affirm and out-Chime Chime gives Amount a $681 million valuation

By Jonathan Shieber

Amount, a new service that helps traditional banks compete in a digital world, has raised $81 million from none other than Goldman Sachs as it looks to help legacy fintech players compete with their more nimble digital counterparts.

The company, which spun out from the startup lending company Avant in January of this year, has already inked deals with Banco Popular, HSBC, Regions Bank and TD Bank to power their digital banking services and offer products like point-of-sale lending to compete with challenger banks like Chime and lenders like Affirm or Klarna.

“Most banks are looking for resources and infrastructure to accelerate their digital strategy and meet the demands of today’s consumer,” said Jade Mandel, a Vice President in Goldman Sachs’ growth equity platform, GS Growth, who will be joining the Board of Directors at Amount, in a statement. “Amount enables banks to navigate digital transformation through its modular and mobile-first platform for financial products. We’re excited to partner with the team as they take on this compelling market opportunity.”

Complimenting those customer facing services is a deep expertise in fraud prevention on the back-end to help banks provide more loans with less risk than competitors, according to chief executive Adam Hughes.

It’s the combination of these three services that led Goldman to take point on a new $81 million investment in the company, with participation from previous investors August Capital, Invus Opportunities and Hanaco Ventures — giving Amount a post-money valuation of $681 million and bringing the company’s total capital raised in 2020 to a whopping $140 million.

Think of Amount as a white-labeled digital banking service provider for luddite banks that hadn’t upgraded their services to keep pace with demands of a new generation of customers or the COVID-19 era of digital-first services for everything.

Banks pay a pretty penny for access to Amount’s services. On top of a percentage for any loans that the bank process through Amount’s services, there’s an up-front implementation fee that typically averages at $1 million.

The hefty price tag is a sign of how concerned banks are about their digital challengers. Hughes said that they’ve seen a big uptick in adoption since the launch of their buy-now-pay-later product designed to compete with the fast growing startups like Affirm and Klarna .

Indeed, by offering banks these services, Amount gives Klarna and Affirm something to worry about. That’s because banks conceivably have a lower cost of capital than the startups and can offer better rates to borrowers. They also have the balance sheet capacity to approve more loans than either of the two upstart lenders.

 “Amount has the wind at its back and the industry is taking notice,” said Nigel Morris, the co-founder of CapitalOne and an investor in Amount through the firm QED Investors. “The latest round brings Amount’s total capital raised in 2020 to nearly $140M, which will provide for additional investments in platform research and development while accelerating the company’s go-to-market strategy. QED is thrilled to be a part of Amount’s story and we look forward to the company’s future success as it plays a vital role in the digitization of financial services.”

FT Partners served as advisor to Amount on this transaction.

Fylamynt raises $6.5M for its cloud workflow automation platform

By Frederic Lardinois

Fylamynt, a new service that helps businesses automate their cloud workflows, today announced both the official launch of its platform as well as a $6.5 million seed round. The funding round was led by Google’s AI-focused Gradient Ventures fund. Mango Capital and Point72 Ventures also participated.

At first glance, the idea behind Fylamynt may sound familiar. Workflow automation has become a pretty competitive space, after all, and the service helps developers connect their various cloud tools to create repeatable workflows. We’re not talking about your standard IFTTT- or Zapier -like integrations between SaaS products, though. The focus of Fylamynt is squarely on building infrastructure workflows. While that may sound familiar, too, with tools like Ansible and Terraform automating a lot of that already, Fylamynt sits on top of those and integrates with them.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

“Some time ago, we used to do Bash and scripting — and then [ … ] came Chef and Puppet in 2006, 2007. SaltStack, as well. Then Terraform and Ansible,” Fylamynt co-founder and CEO Pradeep Padala told me. “They have all done an extremely good job of making it easier to simplify infrastructure operations so you don’t have to write low-level code. You can write a slightly higher-level language. We are not replacing that. What we are doing is connecting that code.”

So if you have a Terraform template, an Ansible playbook and maybe a Python script, you can now use Fylamynt to connect those. In the end, Fylamynt becomes the orchestration engine to run all of your infrastructure code — and then allows you to connect all of that to the likes of DataDog, Splunk, PagerDuty Slack and ServiceNow.

Image Credits: Fylamynt

The service currently connects to Terraform, Ansible, Datadog, Jira, Slack, Instance, CloudWatch, CloudFormation and your Kubernetes clusters. The company notes that some of the standard use cases for its service are automated remediation, governance and compliance, as well as cost and performance management.

The company is already working with a number of design partners, including Snowflake.

Fylamynt CEO Padala has quite a bit of experience in the infrastructure space. He co-founded ContainerX, an early container-management platform, which later sold to Cisco. Before starting ContainerX, he was at VMWare and DOCOMO Labs. His co-founders, VP of Engineering Xiaoyun Zhu and CTO David Lee, also have deep expertise in building out cloud infrastructure and operating it.

“If you look at any company — any company building a product — let’s say a SaaS product, and they want to run their operations, infrastructure operations very efficiently,” Padala said. “But there are always challenges. You need a lot of people, it takes time. So what is the bottleneck? If you ask that question and dig deeper, you’ll find that there is one bottleneck for automation: that’s code. Someone has to write code to automate. Everything revolves around that.”

Fylamynt aims to take the effort out of that by allowing developers to either write Python and JSON to automate their workflows (think “infrastructure as code” but for workflows) or to use Fylamynt’s visual no-code drag-and-drop tool. As Padala noted, this gives developers a lot of flexibility in how they want to use the service. If you never want to see the Fylamynt UI, you can go about your merry coding ways, but chances are the UI will allow you to get everything done as well.

One area the team is currently focusing on — and will use the new funding for — is building out its analytics capabilities that can help developers debug their workflows. The service already provides log and audit trails, but the plan is to expand its AI capabilities to also recommend the right workflows based on the alerts you are getting.

“The eventual goal is to help people automate any service and connect any code. That’s the holy grail. And AI is an enabler in that,” Padala said.

Gradient Ventures partner Muzzammil “MZ” Zaveri echoed this. “Fylamynt is at the intersection of applied AI and workflow automation,” he said. “We’re excited to support the Fylamynt team in this uniquely positioned product with a deep bench of integrations and a nonprescriptive builder approach. The vision of automating every part of a cloud workflow is just the beginning.”

The team, which now includes about 20 employees, plans to use the new round of funding, which closed in September, to focus on its R&D, build out its product and expand its go-to-market team. On the product side, that specifically means building more connectors.

The company offers both a free plan as well as enterprise pricing and its platform is now generally available.

Wellory raises $4.5M for its ‘anti-diet’ nutrition app

By Anthony Ha

Wellory, a startup that bills itself as taking an “anti-diet approach” to nutrition and wellness, is announcing that it has raised $4.2 million in funding.

The round was led by Story Ventures, with participation from Harlem Capital, Tinder co-founders Sean Rad and Justin Mateen, Ground Up Ventures, NBA player Wayne Ellington, Hannah Bronfman and others.

Wellory founder and CEO Emily Hochman (who was previously the head of customer success at WayUp) told me that she struggled with dieting in college, to the point where she was risking chronic illness and infertility. As a result, she became determined to gain a better understanding of nutrition and her own health, eventually studying and becoming a certified health coach at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.

Hochman said that through Wellory, she wants to offer that same understanding to others, which she said has created a “managed marketplace” matching users with a licensed nutritionist, registered dietitian or certified health coach. Those coaches create a personalized plan for losing weight or achieving other health goals, then continue to provide feedback as users share photos of each meal and additional health data.

For example, she said that a customer who had just given birth and was interested in postpartum weight loss would get matched with a coach who specializes in that area.

“The thing that is so important is that we build personalized plans,” she added. “We don’t have anything that says, ‘At Wellory, we do these 10 things and that’s a standard diet.’ We’re actually going to help you learn how to make smart and healthy decisions.”

Wellory CEO Emily Hochman

Wellory CEO Emily Hochman (Image Credit: Wellory)

Wellory officially launched in September, but Hochman said some beta testers have been using the service for nine, 10 or 11 months. She said early customers include people who are interested in weight loss, those who need nutrition advice due to chronic illness and “optimizers” who simply want to make sure they’re eating as healthily as possible.

She also noted that although customers usually sign up with a specific goal in mind, “once they hit their goal, because of the power of a strong relationship, they say, ‘I don’t want to go back to where I was, let’s keep building, let’s make sure I can sustain this.’ ”

The app is available on iOS and Android and currently costs $59.99 per month. Hochman plans to introduce additional pricing tiers. and she said the funding will allow Wellory to expand the technology and marketing teams, and to explore new partnerships.

“As a data technology investor, we get approached by different types of wearable or diagnostic companies nearly every week,” said Jake Yormak of Story Ventures in a statement. “We love the category but what we saw in Wellory was a way to put a human coach at the center of understanding this health data. With nutrition as the wedge, Wellory has built a trusted relationship with people who affirmatively want to better understand and improve their wellbeing.”

AgentSync lands consecutive rounds as insurtech booms

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning AgentSync, an insurtech startup focused on agent compliance management, announced a new funding round worth $6.7 million.

The financing event, led by well-known SaaS founder David Sacks’ Craft Ventures, included dollars from both Operator Collective and prior investors.

The new capital will help AgentSync move faster, with co-founder and  CEO Niranjan Sabharwal saying that it is pulling hires earmarked for next year into 2020. He added that this most recent fundraising cycle consumed far less time than the round that preceded it.

TechCrunch asked what the company is calling this round, which was raised via a SAFE note instead of as a priced equity investment. Sabharwal said that it could be called a Seed-Extension, which seems reasonable.

The new investment was raised at a cap of around 4x its previous conversion ceiling.

TechCrunch last covered AgentSync this August, when the startup announced a $4.4 million funding round. Akin to fellow early-stage startup Welcome, which announced a second 2020 raise earlier today, AgentSync managed to quickly raise again.

In AgentSync’s case, it’s not hard to parse why the company was able to: It’s growing very quickly.

According to an interview with Sabharwal, the company has seen its revenue scale 4x since the start of the pandemic, and 10x in the last year. The timeframes around those metrics are slightly relaxed, but the raw growth underscores that AgentSync is onto something.

Sabharwal founded the company with his spouse Jenn Knight and recently moved the company’s HQ to Denver from San Francisco.

AgentSync’s product, born out of a tool that Zenefits developed while rebuilding itself, helps insurance companies and other players in the insurance space ensure that agents are compliant (hence its name). And while that conceit might sound like a modest effort, it’s a complex effort given a multi-stakeholder environment, regulatory conditions, and an antiquated market.

The company saw strong initial traction, reporting $1.9 million ARR during its August round. Doing some mental math, if AgentSync was doing around $1 million ARR in March, it would be at around $4 million ARR today. That feels roughly correct, given the 4x-since-March metric, and the $1.9 million ARR datapoint from mid-Q2 2020.

According to Sabharwal, AgentSync now has more than $10 million in the bank, meaning that the startup is very well capitalized to continue scaling in the coming quarters. New investor Sacks is bullish about how large AgentSync could become, telling TechCrunch in an email that its “market is huge,” and that the “insurtech revolution is [still] in its infancy.”

But while AgentSync is growing quickly and has found reasonable product-market fit — 17% of its net ARR today was driven by what the company descried as net-organic expansion, to pick an example — it still has the hallmarks of an early-stage startup like inconsistent sales cycle length, according to several deals that the CEO detailed during an interview. However, the company recently hired a sales team after a period of time when Sabharwal was in charge of  selling; the company’s selling process should accelerate in coming quarters.

The CEO told TechCrunch that until recently he was selling AgentSync solo with no enterprise sales experience. If he could do it, he reasoned, others will be able to as well. Sabharwal serves as the startup’s CEO, while Knight is its CTO.

Closing, Insurtech is hot, meaning that AgentSync is growing amidst fertile market ground and investor interest. Another few quarters of similar growth and we could be hearing about its Series A.

Space Perspective raises $7M for its plan to ferry tourists to the edge of space

By Darrell Etherington

Space tourism startup Space Perspective has raised a new $7 million in seed funding, from investors including Prime Movers Lab and Base Ventures . The company, founded by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, who previously founded stratospheric balloon company World View, is focused on developing Spaceship Neptune, a pressurized passenger capsule that is meant to be carried by an ultra-high altitude balloon to the very edge of space to provide passengers with an unparalleled view.

Spaceship Neptune is designed to carry up to eight passengers per trip, on a six-hour journey that will include two hours spent at the upper edge of Earth’s atmosphere and a water landing in the Atlantic Ocean. The first test flight is currently targeted for the end of the first quarter of 2021, according to Space Perspective, and it will involve flying an uncrewed Neptune capsule prototype, which also won’t have the pressurized cabin of the final version.

From there, the plan is to test and develop systems necessary for Neptune to take up its first human passengers, with the goal of doing that by sometime around 2024, with ticket pre-sales launching from 2021 for interested, deep-pocketed parties.

Poynter and MacCallum’s prior venture World View originally included human stratospheric space tourism trips as part of its business model, but the company has since pivoted to focus on scientific and commercial communication and observation payloads exclusively under its current leadership. World View appointed Ryan Hartman as CEO in 2018, replacing Poynter in the top spot.

Obvious Ventures outlines the ‘world-positive’ impact of its startups and shares what’s next

By Connie Loizos

Today, the early-stage, mission-focused, San Francisco-based venture firm Obvious Ventures released a very readable overview of how each of its portfolio companies is benefiting the world in its own way.

Its report shines a light on the grocery deliver service Good Eggs, for example, sharing that roughly 70% of the products sold by the company are grown or produced within 250 miles of its food hub in Oakland, California That matters because fresher food is more nutritious. The electric bus company Proterra is meanwhile starting to save cities millions of dollars in diesel fuel costs while also eliminating thousands of tons of carbon dioxide.

It’s the kind of investing to which more people are gravitating, says Obvious’s cofounder and managing director James Joaquin . We talked with him last week along with one of his firm cofounders, the serial entrepreneur Ev Williams. You can find part of our conversation with Williams here; below, we talked mostly with Joaquin about how Obvious is thinking about 2021 and what the team finds most interesting these days. (Hint, hallucinogens are now in the mix.)

TC: For founders reading this, how many companies is Obvious talking with on a weekly basis right now?

JJ: Annually, we look at or consider about 2,000 investment opportunities. It’s obviously not completely linear distribution, but in terms of incoming investment opportunities that we track, it’s a very large number. Most of those get filtered right up front as either being in a geography we don’t invest in because we’re focused on North America — we’re not focused on Europe or Asia — or maybe they’re what we would call world neutral or world negative [so] outside of our thematic areas. But then a subset of those our team will meet with, and the bottom of that funnel is that we make between 10 to 12 investments per year.

TC: At some firms, everyone is a generalist. At Obvious, each partner seems to have a specific focus, like your focus in part on plant startups. Is this correct? 

JJ:  That’s one of the areas that that that I focus on, for sure. I mean, we’ve got five investing partners in the firm. Within food, I lead our work in plant-based protein and plant-forward food and consumer products companies. Thanks to work that Ev and [Twitter cofounder Biz Stone] did, we were very early investors in Beyond Meat. We’re also an early lead investor in Miyoko’s Creamery, which is a plant-based butter and cheese company that is one of our fastest-growing portfolio companies right now.

TC: How do deals get green-lit?

JJ: The inside baseball is that we tend to form two-person teams on a given deal when it reaches the due diligence stage. So there’s always a lead partner or managing director who’s championing the deal, but there’s a second person from the investment team working on it, too. Then ultimately, a CEO or a management team presents to the full investment committee before we make a decision to to issue a term sheet.

The process isn’t quite unanimous, but each managing director at the firm has the power of veto, so if someone feels really strongly that Obvious shouldn’t make that investment, they have that power to stop an investment, but that rarely occurs.

TC: Who are you seeing that’s newer to the table? More firms say they are paying attention to the themes on which you’ve been focused the start.

JJ: I would say there are a number of new firms that kind of are similar age to us that have also been investing in some of these frontiers. Firms like Lux capital have done a lot of co-investing with us in the computational biology space. Data Collective is a firm that we’ve co-invested with in some of the full stack healthcare work that we do. S2G Ventures is a great plant-based protein food firm that we’ve co-invested with,  so those are some of the new faces that we think are part of this world-positive generation of investors trying to solve big problems with startups and with cutting edge tech.

TC: Are you interested in hallucinogens? 

JJ: It’s absolutely a theme where we’ve been doing research. I should say we’re interested in it specifically for medical use, but we think that these former Schedule 1 drugs like ketamine, MDMA [commonly known as ecstasy], and psilocybin have great potential to solve the mental health crisis that not just the US but that the world is seeing ramped to be a top five human health issue. In the early trials around treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, these molecules are showing great promise.

We think there’s an opportunity to create a full-stack healthcare company similar to what we’ve done with Virta Health for [type 2] diabetes, or the work that DevotedHealth, one of our portfolio companies, is doing for seniors in the Medicare space. We think there’s going to be one or more new mental health companies built around this new kind of drug-assisted therapy that these molecules will enable.

TC: Ev, you’re an investor in a company that last month announced a small seed round called Sanity, a platform that helps users build and manage content flows on sites, which seems like a perfect fit for you. When is a deal an Ev Williams deal versus an Obvious Ventures deal?

EW: That was one of the rare deals that I did separate from the firm. I used to do a bit of angel investing before before we formed Obvious and one of the great reliefs for me has been to just send all my deal flow to James and the team. However, as James described, there’s a focus at Obvious both in deal size and area that doesn’t include everything, so Sanity is basically an enterprise product and the reason it was interesting to me is is because of the future infrastructure of how content is [distributed] is super interesting to me for Medium’s purposes. I liked what Sanity is doing. I was really impressed. It just didn’t align necessarily with the focus areas of Obvious, so that’s why I did that deal. But it’s really rare.

TC: What percentage of the firm’s deals are inbound versus outbound?

JJ: We make sure we have the bandwidth to do both. We call it hunting and farming. Farming is farming the inbox, [and reviewing] all those introductions from our networks that come in. Probably 60% to 70% of our investment portfolio came from that inbound, but 30% to 40% came from hunting, which is building apoint of view around a theme that we care about,then going out and mapping out who are all the entrepreneurs who are doing work in that area, and who are the angel investors and pre-seed funds that are doing good work in that area, because those are important relationships for us as well.

TC: What’s your position on Bitcoin?

JJ: We definitely did our research and we tried to answer the question: are there world-positive applications for blockchain writ large and then specifically for Bitcoin as a blockchain cryptocurrency? We haven’t found any that we’ve made an investment in yet, but we’re open to the idea we continue to research that space.

TC: You recently added Tina Hoang-To to the team; she joined you from the late-stage and crossover fund Technology Crossover Ventures. Will Obvious be making more growth-stage investments?

JJ: We’re known for our early stage work, but from day one, we crafted a barbell strategy where we said, because we’re thematic, because we want to find the best plant protein companies, find the best electric transportation companies, we knew that some of those companies that we would be hunting might already be at the growth stage. So we architected our funds to be 75% early stage and 25% emerging growth roughly. Now, with the addition of Tina, we’re basically increasing our horsepower [on that front]. We’ve got someone better and smarter than us who knows [growth stage companies] really well.

TC: Might we see Obvious form a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, around a growth-stage company?

JJ: Ev, I know you’ve gotten incoming about SPACs. Our take at Obvious is that we do not have any plans to create an Obvious Ventures SPAC. We tend to stick to our knitting. I will say that a number of our companies that are that are at the growth stage, [meaning in the] $50 million to $100 million dollars [range] of annual revenue where they’re thinking about public markets, they’re being approached by a number of SPAC [sponsors] as interesting targets. So we’re seeing that, and it’s really up to our founders, not us [if they move forward with these]. But we certainly have a voice on the board and we’re considering in some cases, our portfolio companies going public via a SPAC

EW: I haven’t haven’t looked into [SPACs] seriously yet. I think liquidity can be a good thing, and hopefully many of these SPACs will work out, but I’m kind of in a wait-and see-mode like a lot of people.

Join us for a live Q&A with Sapphire’s Jai Das right now!

By Alex Wilhelm

We’re live! Check the links below!

Today’s the day! In just a few hours I am chatting with with Jai Das, a managing director at Sapphire Ventures.

The conversation is part of the second season of our Extra Crunch Live series that has seen all sorts of investors and founders join TechCrunch for a dig into their work.

Das’ participation comes at the perfect moment: He invested early in MuleSoft, which sold to Salesforce for $6.5 billion back in 2018. Salesforce is expected to announce its purchase of Slack later today, perhaps before our chat. Either way, we’ll ask Das about selling companies, selling them to Salesforce in particular and what we should take away concerning the enterprise software M&A market from the deal.

Here are notes from the last episode of Extra Crunch Live with Bessemer’s Byron Deeter.

And as we noted last week, we will also dig into the role of corporate venture capital in 2020 and beyond, the state of early-to-growth stage investing as Sapphire leads rounds from Series A to Series C, API-led startups, along with the importance of geographic location in the pandemic for founding teams and more.

It’s going to be fun! And it’s in just a few hours. So make sure that your Extra Crunch login works, hit the jump, save the time to your calendar and submit a question ahead of time if you want me to see your notes before we start. In the meantime, I’m going to find my most Zoom-friendly shirt and run through my intro a few times.

We’re live in mere hours! See you soon.

Details

Below are links to add the event to your calendar and to save the Zoom link. We’ll share the YouTube link shortly before the discussion:

Salut raises $1.25M for its virtual fitness service

By Alex Wilhelm

This morning Salut, an app-based service that allows fitness trainers to host classes virtually, announced that it has raised $1.25 million in a new financing event. The round was led by Charles Hudson, an investor at Precursor Ventures.

Founder Matthew DiPietro, formerly of Twitch, told TechCrunch that Salut soft-launched in mid-September, with a wider release coming today.

DiPietro thought up the concept behind Salut before the pandemic hit, he said during an interview, but after COVID-19 appeared the idea took on new urgency. The company put together what DiPietro described as a no-code alpha version of the service in May to test the market, allowing the then-nascent startup to validate demand on both sides of its marketplace — it’s famously difficult to jumpstart two-sided marketplaces, as demand tends to follow supply, and vice-versa.

The test allowed the company to get to confidence on demand existing from both trainers and exercise fans, and in its initial economic model.

With the new round in the bank and its product now formally launched, it’s up to Salut to scale rapidly. The company currently has 55 registered trainers on its platform, a reasonable start for the seed-stage startup. It will need to grow that figure by a few orders of magnitude if it wants to generate enough revenue to reach an eventual Series A.

But Salut is not focused on early-revenue generation, taking no cut of trainer revenue today. Indeed, per an email the company sent out to its users this morning, the startup is passing along 100% of post-Apple income that trainers generate, or 85% of the gross.

Currently users can donate to, or tip, trainers that host classes. DiPietro told TechCrunch that subscription options are coming in a quarter or two. The startup also announced today that trainers can now allow their classes to be replayed, what the startup called one of its “most requested features.”

Anyone familiar with Peloton understands why this matters; only a fraction of classes on the Peloton ecosystem are live at any point in time, but the bike comes with a library of content that users can simply load up whenever they like. This also allows Peloton to release more niche content than it otherwise might, as even the heavy metal-themed rides can accrete a reasonable ridership over time (something they might not be able to manage if all classes on the platform were only live once and then gone forever).

DiPietro is bullish on building income streams for trainers, especially during a pandemic that has locked many gyms, leaving fitness processionals with little to no income in many cases.

There’s some early signal that users are willing to pay, the company said, with early users willing to pay $5 or $10 for an hour of fitness training. And with a focus on the long-tail of trainers who can’t attract 10,000 fans to a single class, Salut thinks there are a large number of trainers who have enough pull to generate more income from its service, in time, than they could at a traditional studio.

Salut supports group video classes, of course, so trainers can collect monies from cohorts of users at a time.

The company’s fundraising is largely earmarked for engineering, with the company having what its founder called an ambitious product roadmap.

The startup also announced a new project with Fitness Mentors, a company that helps trainers get certified, to create what the two companies are calling “the industry’s first Virtual Group Fitness Instructor (V-GFI) course and certification.”

You can see why Salut would want the certification to exist; its existence will allow users of its service to find trainers that are worth their time on its service, and may raise the overall level of quality of classes provided.

Let’s see how far Salut can get with $1.25 million.

Join us for a live Q&A with Sapphire’s Jai Das on Tuesday at 2 pm EST/11 am PST

By Alex Wilhelm

Sure, we’re heading into a holiday weekend here in America, but that doesn’t mean that the good ship TechCrunch is going to slow down. We’re diving right back in next week with another installment in season two of Extra Crunch Live, our regular interview series with startup founders, venture capitalists and other leaders from the technology community.

This series is for Extra Crunch members, so if you haven’t signed up you can hop on that train right here.

Next week I’m virtually sitting down with Jai Das, a well-known managing director at Sapphire Ventures.

Das has invested in companies like MuleSoft (sold for $6.5 billion), Alteryx (now public), Square (also public), Sumo Logic (yep, public) while at Sapphire, having previously worked corporate venture jobs at Intel Capital and Agilent Ventures. (Sapphire was itself originally SAP’s corporate venture capital arm, but it split off from its parent in 2011, rebranded and kept on raising funds.)

Here are notes from the last episode of Extra Crunch Live with Bessemer’s Byron Deeter.

It’s going to be fun as there’s so much to talk about. I’m still bubbling up my question list, so to avoid giving the Sapphire PR team too much pre-discussion ammo let’s just say that corporate venture capital’s place in the 2020 boom is an interesting topic for both founders and investors alike.

And I’ll want to press Das on the current market for software startups, where we are in the historical arc of SaaS multiples, the importance of API-led tech upstarts, where founders might look to build the next great enterprise startup and if there are any new platforms bubbling up that could be a foundation for future founders to later leverage.

As this is an Extra Crunch Live, I’ll also work in a few questions from the audience (that means you, make sure your Extra Crunch subscription is live), to augment my own clipboard of notes.

This is going to be a good one. I’ll see you next Tuesday for the show.

Details

Below are links to add the event to your calendar and to save the Zoom link. We’ll share the YouTube link shortly before the discussion:

Cast.ai nabs $7.7M seed to remove barriers between public clouds

By Ron Miller

When you launch an application in the public cloud, you usually put everything on one provider, but what if you could choose the components based on cost and technology and have your database one place and your storage another?

That’s what Cast.ai says that it can provide, and today it announced a healthy $7.7 million seed round from TA Ventures, DNX, Florida Funders and other unnamed angels to keep building on that idea. The round closed in June.

Company CEO and co-founder Yuri Frayman says that they started the company with the idea that developers should be able to get the best of each of the public clouds without being locked in. They do this by creating Kubernetes clusters that are able to span multiple clouds.

“Cast does not require you to do anything except for launching your application. You don’t need to know  […] what cloud you are using [at any given time]. You don’t need to know anything except to identify the application, identify which [public] cloud providers you would like to use, the percentage of each [cloud provider’s] use and launch the application,” Frayman explained.

This means that you could use Amazon’s RDS database and Google’s ML engine, and the solution decides how to make that work based on your requirements and price. You set the policies when you are ready to launch and Cast will take care of distributing it for you in the location and providers that you desire, or that makes most sense for your application.

The company takes advantage of cloud-native technologies, containerization and Kubernetes to break the proprietary barriers that exist between clouds, says company co-founder Laurent Gil. “We break these barriers of cloud providers so that an application does not need to sit in one place anymore. It can sit in several [providers] at the same time. And this is great for the Kubernetes application because they’re kind of designed with this [flexibility] in mind,” Gil said.

Developers use the policy engine to decide how much they want to control this process. They can simply set location and let Cast optimize the application across clouds automatically, or they can select at a granular level exactly the resources they want to use on which cloud. Regardless of how they do it, Cast will continually monitor the installation and optimize based on cost to give them the cheapest options available for their configuration.

The company currently has 25 employees with four new hires in the pipeline, and plans to double to 50 by the end of 2021. As they grow, the company is trying keep diversity and inclusion front and center in its hiring approach; they currently have women in charge of HR, marketing and sales at the company.

“We have very robust processes on the continuous education inside of our organization on diversity training. And a lot of us came from organizations where this was very visible and we took a lot of those processes [and lessons] and brought them here,” Frayman said.

Frayman has been involved with multiple startups, including Cujo.ai, a consumer firewall startup that participated in TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in New York in 2016.

As e-bikes boom, FuroSystems raises its first venture funding round ahead of a new model launch

By Mike Butcher

With COVID-19 making commuters switch to bikes, and cities wanting cleaner air, the e-bike revolution is only just getting started. Further evidence of this is the news that today British e-bike manufacturer FuroSystems has closed its first institutional venture funding round of £750,000 with participation by TSP Ventures and European impact investment bank ClearlySo, as well as a number of angel investors.

Not unlike the ‘new wave’ of startup e-bike makers such as VanMoof and Cowboy, London-based FuroSystems is also bringing an interesting take on the e-bike concept. Key to its appeal is that its bikes are very light and can therefore be pedaled like normal bikes when not using the electric engine. Furthermore, their pricing is also highly competitive compared to conventional bikes.

Unlike many e-Bike makers, it also has a folding e-bike, the Furo X, whose carbon fiber frame makes it one of the lightest e-bikes in the world, weighing just 15kg. The high-density removable lithium-ion battery has a range of 55km. FuroSystems also makes a point of using industry-standard parts such as Shimano gears and hydraulic disk brakes, which makes it competitive with others such as Gocycle and Brompton.

These factors are helping to make them a hit amongst commuters.

As a result the company, which also makes electric scooters, says it has seen demand surge since the coronavirus lockdown, with year-on-year sales up fivefold. Unusually, the company says it has been profitable since it started, but this latest funding will be used to invest in R&D to create its next line of products.

CEO and co-founder Eliott Wertheimer, said in a statement: “We’re currently experiencing a once-in-a-century shift in transport, thanks to increasing awareness of the impact we are having on our environment along with a renewed desire to make healthier personal choices. Electric bikes and electric scooters are crucial to solving the mobility issues we see today, of congestion and pollution.”

Wertheimer added that part of the bike manufacturing is likely to be brought to Portugal in order to fulfill demand.

TSP Ventures CEO Chris Smith, commented: “The e-bike market has exploded in recent years with sales set to reach €10 billion by 2025 and FuroSystems is at the intersection of this burgeoning industry.”

The startup has also designed and manufactured the Fuze, a high-end e-scooter with over 800W of available peak power; double front and rear suspension; dual mechanical disc brakes; remote key lock and alarm system; reinforced inflatable pneumatic 10” wheels. The power and top-speed is able to be adjusted to comply with local regulations.

Upcoming will be the Aventa, an e-bike with aerospace-grade alloys; a boost system; hydraulic disk brakes; nine gears; high-performance clutch; integrated 504Wh battery; and the weight below 17kg. Prices for the Aventa will start at £1,399 and it will be available to pre-order from FuroSystems.com at the end of the month.

Founders Albert Nassar and Eliott Wertheimer met whilst studying mechanical and aerospace engineering respectively at the University of Bristol. Nassar went on to work with the autonomous drone inspection team at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory which later spun-out as Perceptual Robotics, whilst Wertheimer developed small nuclear batteries for tiny satellites in partnership with the European Space Agency and different UK universities. The pair reunited at Imperial College’s Business School in 2015, and created FuroSystems in 2017.

Talking tech’s exodus, Twitter’s labels and Medium’s next moves with founder Ev Williams

By Connie Loizos

Earlier today, we had the chance to talk with Twitter and Medium co-founder Ev Williams, along with operator-turned investor James Joaquin, who helps oversee the day-to-day of the mission-focused venture firm they separately co-founded six years ago, Obvious Ventures.

We collectively discussed lot of venture-y things, some of which we’ll publish next week, so stayed tuned. In the meantime, we spent some time talking specifically with Williams about both Twitter and Medium and some of the day’s biggest headlines. Following are some excerpts from that chat, lightly edited for length and clarity.

TC: A lot of tech CEOs have been saying goodbye to San Francisco in 2020. Do you think the trend is attracting too much attention, or perhaps not enough?

EW: I moved away to New York from the Bay Area a little over a year ago with my family. I’d lived in San Francisco for 20 years, and I had never lived in New York and thought, ‘Why not go? Now seems like a good time.’ Turns out I was wrong. [Laughs.] It was a very bad time to move to New York. So I was there for for six months and quickly came back to California, which is a great place to be in a world where you’re not going into bars and restaurants and seeing people.

TC: You moved when COVID took hold?

EW: Yes. In March, Manhattan suddenly seemed not ideal. So now I’m on the peninsula.

I’m from San Francisco. It was really, for me, just honestly looking for a change. But an enabling factor that could be common in many of these cases is the fact that I no longer have to be in the office in San Francisco every day, [whereas] for most of 20 years [beforehand], all my work life was in an office in San Francisco, generally with a company I had started, so I thought it was important to be there.

This was pre COVID and remote work. But remote work was becoming more common. And I noticed in 2018 or so, with this massive number of companies that were in San Francisco — startups and large public companies and pre-IPO companies — that competition for talent had gotten more extreme than it had ever been. So it got me — along with a lot of founders and CEOs — thinking about maybe the advantage of hiring locally and having everybody in the same office [was a pro] that was starting to get outweighed by the cons … And, of course, the tools and technology that make remote work possible were getting better all the time.

TC: Given that you co-founded Twitter, I have to ask about this presidential transition that is maybe, finally happening. In January, Donald Trump will lose the privileges he enjoyed as president. Given the amount of disinformation he has published routinely, do you think Twitter should have cracked down on him sooner? How would you rate its handling of a president who really tested its boundaries in every way?

EW: I think what Twitter has done especially recently is a pretty good solution. I mean, I don’t agree with the the notion that he should have been removed altogether a long time ago. Having the visibility, literally seeing, what the president is thinking at any given moment, as ludicrous as it is, is helpful.

What he would be doing if he didn’t have Twitter is unclear, but he’d be doing something to get his message out there. And what the company has done most recently with the warnings on his tweets or blocking them is great. It’s providing more information. It’s kind of ‘buyer beware’ about this information. And it’s a bolder step than any platform had taken previously. It’s a good version of an in-between where previously [people would] talk about just kicking people off, [and] allowing freedom of speech.

TC: You started Blogger, then Twitter, then Medium. As someone who has spent much of your career  focused on content and distribution, do you have any other thoughts about what more Twitter or other platforms could be doing [to tackle disinformation]? Because there is going to be somebody who comes along again with the same autocratic tendencies.

EW: I think all of society gets more information savvy — that’s one hope over the long term. It wasn’t that long ago that if something was in “media,” it was accepted as true. And now I think everyone’s skeptical. We’ve learned that that’s not necessarily the case and certainly not online.

Unfortunately, we’re now at the point where a lot of people have lost faith in everything published or shared anywhere. But I think that’s a step along the evolution of just getting more media savvy and knowing that sources really matter, and as we build both better tools, things will get better.

TC: Speaking of content platforms, Medium charges $50 per year for users to access an unlimited amount of articles from individual writers and poets. Have you said how many subscribers the platform now has?

EW: We haven’t given a precise number, but I can tell you it’s in the high hundreds of thousands. It’s been a been a couple years now, and I’m a very firm believer in the model — not only that people will pay for quality information, but that it’s just a much healthier model for publishers, be they individuals or companies, because it creates that feedback loop of ‘quality gets rewarded.’

If people aren’t getting value, they unsubscribe, and that isn’t the case with an advertising model. If people click, you keep making money, and you can kind of keep tricking people or keep appealing to lowest-common-denominator impulses. There were a couple of decades where the mantra was ‘No one will pay for content on the internet,’ which obviously seems silly now. But that was the established belief for such a long time.

TC: Do you ever think you should have charged from the outset? I sometimes wonder if it’s harder to throw on the switch afterward.

EW: Yes, and no. When we first switched to this model in 2017, we created a subscription, but the vast majority of content was — and actually still is — outside of the paywall. And our model is different than most because it’s a platform, and we don’t own the content, and we have an agreement with our creators that they can publish behind the paywall if they want, and we will pay them if they do that. But they can also publish outside the paywall if they’re not interested in making money and want maximum reach. And those models are actually very complementary because the scale of the platform brings a lot of people in through the top of the funnel.

Scale is really important for most businesses, but for a paywall, it’s especially important because people have to be visiting with enough frequency to actually hit the paywall and be motivated to pay.

TC: Out of curiosity, what do you make of Substack, a startup that invites writers to create their own newsletters using a subscription model and then takes a cut of their revenue in exchange for a host of back-end services.

EW: There’s a bit of a creator renaissance going on right now that is part of a bigger wave of a people being willing to pay for quality information and independent writers and thinkers actually breaking out on their own and building brands and followings. And I think we’re going to see more of that.

TC: Medium has raised $132 million over the years. Will you raise more? Where do you want to take the platform in the next 12 to 24 months?

EW: We’re not yet profitable, so I anticipate that we will raise more money.

There’s a very big business to be built here. While more and more people are willing to pay for content, I don’t think that means that most people will subscribe to dozens of sources, whether they’re websites with paywalls or newsletters. If you look at how basically every media category has evolved, a lot of them have gone through this shift from free to paid, at least at the higher end of the market. That includes music, television and even games. And at the high end, there tend to be players who own a large part of the market, and I think that comes down to offering the best consumer value proposition — one that gives people lots of optionality, lots of personalization and lots of value for one price.

I think that the same thing is going to play out in this area, and for the subscription that’s able to reach critical mass, that’s a multi-billion-dollar business. And that’s what we’re aiming to build.

AliveCor, which helps its users manage their heart health, scores another FDA approval

By Connie Loizos

Last week, AliveCor, a nine-year-old, 92-person company whose small, personal electrocardiogram devices help users detect atrial fibrillation, bradycardia, and tachycardia from heart rate readings taken from their own kitchen tables, raised $65 million from investors.

Today, it’s clearer why investors — who’ve now provided the Mountain View, Ca., company with $169 million altogether —  are excited about its prospects. AliveCor just received its newest FDA clearance under the agency’s software as a medical device designation for an upgrade that generates enough detail and fidelity that AliveCor says its cardiological services can now serve as stand-in for the vast majority of cases when cardiac patients are not in front of their doctor.

Specifically, the company says the FDA-cleared update can detect premature atrial contractions, premature ventricular contractions, sinus rhythm with wide QRS.

In a world where the pandemic continues to rage and people remain hesitant to visit a hospital, these little steps add up. In fact, CEO Priya Abani, along with AliveCor founder and chief medical officer David Albert, formerly the chief clinical scientist of cardiology at GE, say AliveCor’s “Kardia” devices have been used to record nearly 15 million EKG recordings since March of this year, which is up over 70% year-over-year.

They also claim a 25% increase year-over-year in what they call physician-patient connections, meaning doctors specifically asking their patients to use the device, either at their medical office or at the patient’s home. Indeed, the pair says that while the company has focused historically on consumer sales, so much new business is coming through doctor referrals that roughly one out of every two of its devices is now sold through these recommendations.

Patients still need to pay out of pocket for AliveCor’s personal EKG devices, one of which currently sells for $89 while a more sophisticated model sells for $139.

The company also more recently rolled out a subscription product for $99 per year that “unlocks” additional features, including monthly summaries of a customer’s heart data, and hopefully soon, says Abani, access to cardiologists who will be able to answer questions in lieu of one’s own cardiologist.

Abani — who joined AliveCor last year from Amazon, where she was a general manager and director of Alexa — says other offerings are also in the works that should help customers measure their hypertension and blood pressure. She adds that the company more broadly sees itself as becoming a way for people to manage chronic conditions from home and that, if things go AliveCor’s way, employers will begin offering the service to employees as a way for them to take better care of their own heart health.

In the meantime, AliveCor’s bigger push into the enterprise appears tied not only to COVID and its ripple effects but also to competition on the consumer front from Apple Watch, which also now enables wearers to records the electrical pulses that make one’s heart beat and to determine whether the upper and lower chambers are their heart are in rhythm.

Though the company has sung Apple’s praises for raising awareness around heart health, last year, owing to shrinking sales, AliveCor stopped making an earlier product called the KardiaBand that was an FDA-cleared ECG wristband designed for use with Apple Watches.

AliveCor’s products are currently sold in 12 countries, including India, South Korea, and Germany, and it has clearance to sell in more than 37 altogether.

In addition to selling directly to customers through its site, its devices are available to buy through Best Buy, CVS, and Walgreens.

Very worth noting: Neither Apple nor AliveCor can detect actual heart attacks. While both can detect atrial fibrillation, acute heart attacks are not associated with atrial fibrillation.

Approaching commercialization for its autonomous radar nav system, Lunewave raises $7 million

By Jonathan Shieber

Lunewave, the Arizona-based startup developing a novel technology for radars for autonomous vehicles, has raised $7 million in financing as it gets ready for the commercial rollout of its systems.

The company’s latest financing came from Proeza entures, Blue 9 Capital, Tsingyuan Ventures and Intact Ventures, the company said.

With the latest funding Lunewave will continue to work with Tier 1 suppliers to establish strategic partnerships and jointly manufacture the company’s radar sensor, according to chief executive and co-founder John Xin.

The 3D printed Luneburg lens pitches features like broad bandwidth, high gain, and a capacity for forming multiple high-quality beams in all directions. The company said two of its sensors could replace 20 radar sensros used today.

The Lunewave radar has already gone through several pre-development projects with original equipment manufacturers and with ride hailing companies. “We’re very close to establishing a formal contractual partnership to commercialize our product,” said Xin. “By the end of the first quarter we will be able to announce a strategic partnership with a global tier 1 supplier.”

For Xin, the big pillars within sensors are cameras, lidar and radar, and he says that radar is the only one that works well in inclement weather conditions. “In the industry these days it’s becoming a philosophical discussion,” said Xin. “But we believe in sensor fusion. The more safety the better. Our job is to be the vendor choice for radar solutions.”

Xin said the new financing would go to staff up the company’s product development and sales teams as it looks to continue to refine its technology. The company’s product development currently operates on two tracks. One is a pure “a-dash” system and the other is geared toward level three, four, and five autonomy in vehicles.

The company is also hoping to continue its penetration of the industrial vehicle market — another area where Xin says the Lunewave is beginning to see real traction.

“We believe that ADAS and AV systems will continue to make their way into vehicles, leading to a strong growth in radars as they are a core component of both systems,” said Rodolfo Elias Dieck, managing director, Proeza Ventures. 

The company boasts that its technology offers 180-degree field of view in the horizontal plane and can detect objects surrounding a car with 6 times the resolution available today — even at long range and in poor weather.

As part of the funding, former BMW director Peter Schwarzenbacher and former Delphi executive James Zizelman will be taking seats on the company’s board of directors. Zizelman, who currently serves as the president of Stoneridge Contro Devices, was previous the vice president of engineering for Aptiv and an exec at Delphi Automotive.

“The technology that Lunewave is bringing to market provides the ultimate in value proposition,” said Zizelman. “Not only does this innovation bring truly superior technical capability in field of view, resolution, and other attributes, it also offers the opportunity to replace multiple radar units with a single Lunewave device—better and more cost effective.”

 

Investors Lockheed Martin Ventures and SpaceFund are coming to TC Sessions: Space 2020

By Kirsten Korosec

The space industry, once dominated by government-funded programs and a small handful of corporations, has seen a surge in startups in recent years. And with startups aplenty, the venture firms can never be far behind.

Venture capital has played an increasingly important role in rooting out the best and most promising of these startups. The stakes are even higher for the venture arms of corporations. Corporate venture firms are on the constant hunt for the technology that will keep their companies relevant for decades to come.

That’s why we’re excited to announce that Chris Moran, executive director and general manager at Lockheed Martin Ventures, and Meagan Crawford, managing partner at SpaceFund, will join us at our TC Sessions: Space event on December 16 & 17.

Moran leads Lockheed Martin Ventures efforts to invest in small technology businesses that support the company’s larger strategic business objectives. Prior to joining Lockheed Martin, Moran served in a variety of positions at Applied Materials Inc., most recently as the head of the business systems and analytics group.

Crawford isn’t just managing partner at SpaceFund . She’s an experienced space startup executive and founder. As the host of the Mission Eve podcast, she aims to increase the number of women in the space industry and is frequently featured as a thought leader on the industry’s development and investment potential. Crawford also chairs the board of the non-profit Center for Space Commerce and Finance.

She has more than a decade of experience helping educate entrepreneurs and investors through the NewSpace Business Plan Competition, which she started running in 2009. As a manager, coach and judge for the last decade, she has read over 1,000 space business executive summaries, coached hundreds of selected teams, and helped award cash prizes to dozens of NewSpace startups.

Crawford and Moran are tapped in and ready to share with the TechCrunch audience their insights and forecasts for our collective space future. We’ll dig into what their respective companies are paying attention to, the challenges and opportunities of COVID-19 and if a changing administration will change their investment strategy.

Starting today, we’re offering a BOGO deal. Buy one Late Registration ticket for $175 and get one free. You and a colleague pay just $87.50 each — that’s less than the early bird price. Booyah! We’re here all week folks…and this deal ends on Sunday, November 29, at 11:59 p.m. PST.

LA-based Boulevard raises $27 million for its spa management software

By Jonathan Shieber

Boulevard, a spa management and payment platform, has raised $27 million in a new round of funding despite a business slowdown caused by the COVID0-19 pandemic.

Founded four years ago by Matt Danna and Sean Stavropoulos, Boulevard was inspired by Stavropoulos’ inability to book a haircut and Danna’s hunch that the inability of salons and spas to cater to customers like the busy programmer could be indicative of a bigger problem.

The two spent months pounding the pavement in Los Angeles pretending to be college students doing research on the industry. They spoke with salon owners in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and other trendy neighborhoods trying to get a sense of where software and services were falling short.

Through those months of interviews the two developed the booking management and payment platform that would become Boulevard. The inspiration was one part Shopify and one part ServiceTitan, Danna said.

The idea was that Boulevard could build a pretty large business catering to the needs of a niche industry that hadn’t traditionally been exposed to a purpose-built toolkit for its vertical.

Investors including Index Ventures, Toba Capital, VMG Partners, Bonfire Ventures, Ludlow Ventures and BoxGroup agreed.

That could be because of the size of the industry. There is more than $250 billion spent per year across roughly 3 million businesses in the salon and spa category, according to data provided by the company. By comparison, fitness attracts roughly $34 billion in annual spending from 150,000 businesses.

“With limited access to the professionals that help us look and feel our best, I think the world has realized something that our team has always recognized: Salons and spas are more than a luxury, they are essential to our well-being,” said Danna, in a statement. “We are humbled that so many businesses are placing their trust in us during such a turbulent time. This new capital will help accelerate our mission and deliver value to salons and spas that they never imagined was possible from technology.”

According to data provided by the company, Boulevard is definitely giving businesses a boost. On average, businesses increase bookings by 16%, retail revenue jumps by 18% and gratuity paid out to stylists jumps by 24% for businesses that use Boulevard, the company said. It also reduces no-shows and cancellations, and halves time spent on the phone.  

“Boulevard is revitalizing the salon and spa industry, as evidenced by the company’s sustained 300-400% revenue growth over the last three years,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, whose firm led the company’s Series A round and has doubled down with the new capital infusion. 

Customers using the company’s software include: Chris McMillan the Salon, Heyday, MèCHE Salon, Paintbox, Sassoon Salon, SEV Laser, Spoke & Weal and TONI&GUY.

Boulevard now has 90 employees and will look to increase that number as it continues to expand across the country.

Investors have taken a run at the spa market in the past, with company’s like MindBody valued at over $1 billion for its software services. Indeed, that company was taken private two years ago in a $1.9 billion transaction by Vista Equity Partners.

As Boulevard expands, the company may look to get deeper into financial services for the salons and spas that it’s already working with. Given the company’s window into these businesses’ financing, it’s not impossible to imagine a new line of business providing small business loans to these companies.

It’s something that the founders would likely not rule out. And it’s a way to provide more tools to entrepreneurs that often fall outside of the traditional sweet spot for banks and other lenders, Danna said.

 

Index ventures into Latin America to back Sofia, a Mexico City-based telemedicine and health insurer

By Jonathan Shieber

Arturo Sanchez and his co-founders have spent the past two years developing the telemedicine and insurance platform, Sofia, as a way to give customers across Mexico better access to quality healthcare through their insurance plan.

Along with his co-founders, Sebastian Jimenez, a former Google employee who serves as the company’s chief product officer, and Manuel Andere an ex-Patreon employee who’s now Sofia’s chief technology officer, Sanchez  (a former Index Ventures employee) is on a path to provide low-cost insurance for middle class consumers across Latin America, starting in Mexico City.

Backing that vision are a clutch of regional and international investors including Kaszek Ventures, Ribbit Capital, and Index Ventures. When Index Ventures came in to lead the company’s $19 million round earlier this year, it was the first commitment that the venture firm had made in Latin America, but given the strength of the market, it likely won’t be their last.

In Sofia, Index has found a good foothold from which to expand its activity. The company which initially started as a telemedicine platform recently received approvals to operate as an insurer as well — part of a long-term vision for growth where it provides a full service health platform for customers.

Founded by three college friends who graduated from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (Mexico’s version of MIT), the company initially launched with COVID-19 related telemedicine service as the pandemic took hold in Mexico.

That service was a placeholder for what Sanchez said was the broader company vision. And while that product alone had 10,000 users signed up for it, the new vision is broader.

“We registered as an insurance company because we want to go deeper into people’s health. We have built a telemedicine solution, which is a core component of the product. The goal is to be an integrated provider that provide primary care and handles more significant types of illnesses,” said Sanchez.

The company already has a core group of 100 physicians in Mexico City and initially will be serving the city with 70 different specialist areas.

All the virtual consultations are covered without an additional payment and in-person or specialty consultations come at a 30% reduced rate to an out-of-pocket payment, according to Sanchez.

Fees depend on age and gender, but Sanchez said a customer would typically pay around $500 per-year or roughly between $40 and $50 per-month.

The company covers 70% of the cost of most treatments that’s capped at $2,000 per-year and coverage maxes out at $75,000. “In Mexico that covers north of 98% of all illnesses or treatment episodes,” said Sanchez.

In Mexico, insurance is even less common than in the US.

90% of private health spend happens out of pocket. The problem that we’re trying to solve is for these people that are already spending money on healthcare but doing it in an unpredictable and risky way,” said Sanchez. “They buy [our service] and they have access to great quality healthcare that they buy it and it’s a significant step up from what they’ve been living with.”

 

If you didn’t make $1B this week, you are not doing VC right

By Danny Crichton

The only thing more rare than a unicorn is an exited unicorn.

At TechCrunch, we cover a lot of startup financings, but we rarely get the opportunity to cover exits. This week was an exception though, as it was exitpalooza as Affirm, Roblox, Airbnb, and Wish all filed to go public. With DoorDash’s IPO filing last week, this is upwards of $100 billion in potential float heading to the public markets as we make our way to the end of a tumultuous 2020.

All those exits raise a simple question – who made the money? Which VCs got in early on some of the biggest startups of the decade? Who is going to be buying a new yacht for the family for the holidays (or, like, a fancy yurt for when Burning Man restarts)? The good news is that the wealth is being spread around at least a couple of VC firms, although there are definitely a handful of partners who are looking at a very, very nice check in the mail compared to others.

So let’s dive in.

I’ve covered DoorDash’s and Airbnb’s investor returns in-depth, so if you want to know more about those individual returns, feel free to check those analyses out. But let’s take a more panoramic perspective of the returns of these five companies as a whole.
First, let’s take a look at the founders. These are among the very best startups ever built, and therefore, unsurprisingly, the founders all did pretty well for themselves. But there are pretty wide variations that are interesting to note.

First, Airbnb — by far — has the best return profile for its founders. Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharczyk, and Joe Gebbia together own nearly 42% of their company at IPO, and that’s after raising billions in venture capital. The reason for their success is simple: Airbnb may have had some tough early innings when it was just getting started, but once it did, its valuation just skyrocketed. That helped to limit dilution in its earlier growth rounds, and ultimately protected their ownership in the company.

David Baszucki of Roblox and Peter Szulczewski of Wish both did well: they own 12% and about 19% of their companies, respectively. Szulczewski’s co-founder Sheng “Danny” Zhang, who is Wish’s CTO, owns 4.9%. Eric Cassel, the co-founder of Roblox, did not disclose ownership in the company’s S-1 filing, indicating that he doesn’t own greater than 5% (the SEC’s reporting threshold).

DoorDash’s founders own a bit less of their company, mostly owing to the money-gobbling nature of that business and the sheer number of co-founders of the company. CEO Tony Xu owns 5.2% while his two co-founders Andy Fang and Stanley Tang each have 4.7%. A fourth co-founder Evan Moore didn’t disclose his share totals in the company’s filing.

Finally, we have Affirm . Affirm didn’t provide total share counts for the company, so it’s hard right now to get a full ownership picture. It’s also particularly hard because Max Levchin, who founded Affirm, was a well-known, multi-time entrepreneur who had a unique shareholder structure from the beginning (many of the venture firms on the cap table actually have equal proportions of common and preferred shares). Levchin has more shares all together than any of his individual VC investors — 27.5 million shares, compared to the second largest investor, Jasmine Ventures (a unit of Singapore’s GIC) at 22 million shares.

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