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A16z doesn’t invest, it manifests

By Natasha Mascarenhas

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Romain Dillet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jordan Crook

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

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

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

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


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

March 10, 12pm PT/3pm ET

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


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

March 17, 12pm PT/3pm ET

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


Navin Chaddha (Mayfield) + Manish Chandra (Poshmark)

March 24, 12pm PT/3pm ET

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


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

Register for the March episodes of Extra Crunch Live below.

See you there!

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Knock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magical raises $3.3M to modernize calendars

By Frederic Lardinois

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

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

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

Image Credits: Magical

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

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

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

Image Credits: Magical

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Frederic Lardinois

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

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

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

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

Image Credits: Edgybees

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

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

Image Credits: Edgybees

Live video shopping startup Talkshoplive raises $3M

By Anthony Ha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How it works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, Valoreo believes, provides an opportunity for consolidation.

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

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

By Mary Ann Azevedo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jonathan Shieber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

By Manish Singh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan’s Uncovered Fund launches $15M fund to back early-stage startups in Africa

By Tage Kene-Okafor

Uncovered Fund, a VC firm targeting early-stage startups in Africa, announced today that it has launched its $15 million fund which is expected to close at the end of June this year. The Tokyo-based outfit founded by Takuma Terakubo in 2019 will invest $50,000 to $500,000 in African startups in seed and Series A stages.

Before Uncovered Fund, Terakubo was the CEO of Leapfrog Ventures. Together with Japanese startup incubator, Samurai Incubate, they launched Samurai Incubate Fund; a fund focused on early-stage African startups. During his time there, the firm raised more than $4.5 million targeted at startups in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria. It also financed over 10 startups with checks similar to Uncovered Fund’s ($50,000 to $500,000).

Terakubo doesn’t say why he left Samurai Incubate Fund. But according to him, Uncovered Fund’s investment methodology is different from his previous firm because it doesn’t bring only money to the table.

“We do not make scattered, one-shot, small investments, but rather we provide long-term growth support, including follow-on investment. In addition, we not only invest, but we also multiply the huge assets of Japanese companies to grow the business and provide technical support and finance as well,” he said.

As per who these corporations are, Terakubo isn’t disclosing names just yet but says he hopes to do so in the coming months.

Uncovered Fund focuses on startups based in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa playing in retail, fintech, healthtech, logistics, MaaS, agritech, and smart city sectors. The general partner says the firm invests in these sectors because “they are basic behaviors in people’s lives, and we believe it is important to improve convenience as quickly as possible.”

So far, it has backed five startups across these sectors and markets. They include Kenyan e-commerce platform, Sky Garden; US-based and Africa-focused healthtech startup RxAll; Francophone Africa mobility startup, Gozem; Kenyan fintech company LipaLater; and YC-backed Nigerian digital freight startup, SEND Technologies.

Some of these companies are doing business in other countries, and Terakubo says that the firm is willing to fund startups in other African countries as well.

“We are looking for African startups to expand their business across multiple countries. So, we welcome startups from any country as long as the business can scale.”

Uncovered Fund joins other Asian early-stage VC firms like Future Hub, Kepple Africa, and recently launched Sherpa Ventures who have launched within the past four years and funded over 50 African startups during that period. Terakubo says his VC firm hopes to increase this number by backing 15 startups this year and further the synergy between African founders and Asian investors.

“We are looking into joint development from Africa to Asian markets, and that is the big vision we have for the future,” he said. “As a VC and also an entrepreneur, I’m looking forward to the challenge of working with African entrepreneurs to create that future.”

After raising $150 million in equity and debt, Nature’s Fynd opens its fungus food for pre-orders

By Jonathan Shieber

Nature’s Fynd, the food technology company with a new food offering cultivated from fungus found in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, is releasing its first products for pre-order. 

Pitching both a non-dairy cream cheese and meatless breakfast patties, Nature’s Fynd had managed to attract some serious investors including Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management and the Bill Gates-backed investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The company most recently raised $80 million in its last round of funding.

The company is part of a wave of innovative products using a range of bacteria, fungi, and plants to create meat alternatives.  Last year, companies developing meat alternatives raised well over $1 billion in financing and investors show no sign of slowing down in their commitments to the industry.

The commercial launch of the Fy Breakfast Bundle, vegan and non-GMO alternatives to traditional breakfast products will be the first commercial test for Nature’s Fynd as it looks to go to market.

These limited release bundles are available for $14,99 plus shipping, according to the company, and the products will be available across the 48 contiguous U.S. states.

The company’s product is grown using fermentation technology to cultivate the bacteria that Nature’s Fynd’s chief scientists discovered during their research into organisms around Yellowstone National Park.

Nature’s Fynd touts the resilience and efficiency of the microbe it discovered, leading to a more sustainable production process that uses a fraction of the land, water, and energy resources that traditional animal husbandry requires, the company said.

“We choose optimism so that we can find a way to do more with less. Using our novel liquid-air surface fermentation technology, we’re creating a range of sustainable foods that nourish our bodies and nurture our planet for generations to come. We’re really excited to be at the beginning of this journey with the launch of our first-ever limited release of Fy Breakfast Bundles,” said Nature’s Fynd CEO Thomas Jonas. “We’ve deeply studied our consumers and we know that Fy’s unique versatility, which delivers great tasting meat and dairy alternatives for every occasion, is highly appealing.” 

Nature’s Fynd chief executive, Thomas Jonas. Image Credit: Nature’s Fynd

9 investors discuss hurdles, opportunities and the impact of cloud vendors in enterprise data lakes

By Ron Miller

About a decade ago, I remember having a conversation with a friend about big data. At the time, we both agreed that it was the purview of large companies like Facebook, Yahoo and Google, and not something most companies would have to worry about.

As it turned out, we were both wrong. Within a short time, everyone would be dealing with big data. In fact, it turns out that huge amounts of data are the fuel of machine learning applications, something my friend and I didn’t foresee.

Frameworks were already emerging like Hadoop and Spark and concepts like the data warehouses were evolving. This was fine when it involved structured data like credit card info, but data warehouses weren’t designed for unstructured data you needed to build machine learning algorithms, and the concept of the data lake developed as a way to take unprocessed data and store until needed. It wasn’t sitting neatly in shelves in warehouses all labeled and organized, it was more amorphous and raw.

Over time, this idea caught the attention of the cloud vendors like Amazon, Microsoft and Google. What’s more, it caught the attention of investors as companies like Snowflake and Databricks built substantial companies on the data lake concept.

Even as that was happening startup founders began to identify other adjacent problems to attack like moving data into the data lake, cleaning it, processing it and funneling to applications and algorithms that could actually make use of that data. As this was happening, data science advanced outside of academia and became more mainstream inside businesses.

At that point there was a whole new modern ecosystem and when something like that happens, ideas develop, companies are built and investors come. We spoke to nine investors about the data lake idea and why they are so intrigued by it, the role of the cloud companies in this space, how an investor finds new companies in a maturing market and where the opportunities and challenges are in this lucrative area.

To learn about all of this, we queried the following investors:


Where are the opportunities for startups in the data lakes space with players like Snowflake and the cloud infrastructure vendors so firmly established?

Caryn Marooney: The data market is very large, driven by the opportunity to unlock value through digital transformation. Both the data lake and data warehouse architectures will be important over the long term because they solve different needs.

For established companies (think big banks, large brands) with significant existing data infrastructure, moving all their data to a data warehouse can be expensive and time consuming. For these companies, the data lake can be a good solution because it enables optionality and federated queries across data sources.

Dharmesh Thakker: Databricks (which Battery has invested in) and Snowflake have certainly become household names in the data lake and warehouse markets, respectively. But technical requirements and business needs are constantly shifting in these markets — and it’s important for both companies to continue to invest aggressively to maintain a competitive edge. They will have to keep innovating to continue to succeed.

Regardless of how this plays out, we feel excited about the ecosystem that’s emerging around these players (and others) given the massive data sprawl that’s occurring across cloud and on-premise workloads, and around a variety of data-storage vendors. We think there is a significant opportunity for vendors to continue to emerge as “unification layers” between data sources and different types of end users (including data scientists, data engineers, business analysts and others) in the form of integration middleware (cloud ELT vendors); real-time streaming and analytics; data governance and management; data security; and data monitoring. These markets shouldn’t be underestimated.

Casey Aylward: There are a handful of big opportunities in the data lake space even with many established cloud infrastructure players in the space:

  • Business intelligence/analytics/SQL may end up converging with machine learning/code like Scala or Python in certain products, but these domains have different end users and communities, programming language preferences and technical skills. Generally, architectural lock-ins are a big point of fear within core infrastructure. This is true for end users with their cloud providers, storage solutions, compute engines, etc. Solutions will be heterogeneous because of that and technology that enables this flexibility will be important.
  • As data moves around today, it is being reprocessed in each platform, which at scale is inefficient and expensive. There is an opportunity to build technology that allows users to move data around without rewriting transformations, data pipelines and stored procedures.
  • Finally, we’re seeing more traction around general data processing frameworks that are not MapReduce under the hood, especially in the Python data science ecosystem. This is a transition from Hadoop or even Spark, since they aren’t always best suited for unstructured, more modern algorithms.

Felicis’ Aydin Senkut and Guideline’s Kevin Busque on the value of simple pitch decks

By Jordan Crook

Even though Kevin Busque is a co-founder of TaskRabbit, he didn’t get the response he was hoping for the first time he pitched his new venture to Felicis Ventures’ Aydin Senkut. Nonetheless, he said the outcome was one of the best things that could have happened.

“I’m kind of glad that he didn’t invest at the time because it really forced me to take a hard look at what we were doing and really enabled us to become Guideline,” said Busque. “That seed round was an absolute slog. I think I spent seven or eight months trying to raise a round for a product that didn’t exist, going purely on vision.”

Eventually, that idea evolved into Guideline, which describes itself as “a full-service, full-stack 401(k) plan” for small businesses. Eventually, Senkut did write a check — Felicis led Guideline’s $15 million Series B round. Today, Guideline has more than 16,000 businesses across 60+ cities, with more than $3.2 billion in assets under management. The company has raised nearly $140 million.

This week on Extra Crunch Live, Busque and Senkut discussed Guideline’s Series B pitch deck — which Senkut described as a “role model” — and how they built trust over time.

The duo also offered candid, actionable feedback on pitch decks that were submitted by Extra Crunch Live audience members. (By the way, you can submit your pitch deck to be featured on a future episode using this link right here.)

We’ve included highlights below as well as the full video of our conversation.

We record new episodes of Extra Crunch Live each Wednesday at 12 p.m. PST/3 p.m. EST/8 p.m. GMT. Check out the February schedule here.

Episode breakdown:

  • How they met: 1:30
  • Building trust: 11:30
  • Inside Guideline’s Series B deck: 16:00
  • Pitch deck teardown: 33:00

How they met

Senkut and Busque met nearly a decade ago, when Busque was still at TaskRabbit. Several years later, Busque launched out on his own and went fundraising for his original idea. Even though he got a no from Senkut, it wasn’t an easy decision.

Looking back, Senkut said he had much more freedom to follow his instincts while angel investing.

“As an institutional fund with LPs, we were feeling the pressure of checking all the checkmarks,” explained Senkut. “It’s amazing how, sometimes, being more structured or analytical actually does not always lead you to make better decisions.”

When Busque came back around after the pivot, looking to raise a Series B, Senkut called it a “no-brainer,” particularly because of the type of CEO Busque is.

“My opinion of Kevin as a person is that he’s an excellent wartime CEO, but also he’s a product visionary,” said Senkut. “We call them ‘missionary CEOs.’ There are mercenary CEOs who can extract every ounce of dollar from a rock, but we are gravitating much more toward CEOs like Kevin who are focused on product first. People who have a really acute vision of what the problem is, and. a very specific vision for how to solve that problem and ultimately turn it into a long-term scalable and successful company.”

Busque said he was drawn to Senkut based on his level of conviction, explaining that Senkut doesn’t always have to go by the book.

“If he wants to write a check because the founder is great or the product is great, he does it,” said Busque. “It’s not necessarily that he has to see a certain metric or growth pattern.”

Building trust

Obviously, years of staying connected and communicating (and not just about Guideline) laid the foundation for building a relationship. Busque said the honesty in their conversations, including Senkut’s initial rejection, lended itself greatly to the trust they have.

Omnipresent raises $15.8M Series A for its platform to employ remote-workers globally

By Mike Butcher

Omnipresent, which helps companies employ remote-working local teams worldwide, has closed a $15.8M Series A funding round. The fundraise was led by an undisclosed investor with participation from existing investors, Episode 1, Playfair Capital and Truesight Ventures. The company said it closed the round five months after it’s July 2020 $2m in seed round.

Founders Matthew Wilson and Guenther Eisinger started the company as part of Entrepreneur First’s London cohort in 2019.

Omnipresent says it ensures the process of remote-hiring costs a fraction of what it would if the company did it on their own, by using Omnipresent’s platform to onboard employees compliantly in 150 countries. It provides employees with local contracts, tax contributions, and local and international benefits such as health insurance, pensions and equity options. 

In a joint statement, Guenther Eisinger and Matthew Wilson, Co-CEOs of Omnipresent said: “Even before the pandemic we recognized the revolutionary potential of breaking down legal and administrative barriers of international employment. As former business owners, we had first-hand experience of what a headache it is to navigate the complexity and bureaucracy of building global teams. Now with the pandemic and the global shift towards remote working it’s confirmed that we are on the right track.”

Wilson told me in an interview: “For instance, in Canada, we have a Canadian entity and we enter into an employment relationship with that person in Canada, on behalf of our client, so they don’t have to set up any of the legal infrastructure themselves in Canada, or any of the 149 countries that we operate in. We then manage all the ongoing administration of the employment relationship, whether that’s from an HR perspective, from an employee benefits perspective, or if they want to get health care for instance.”

The company competes with other firms like Remote.com and Boundless HQ.

Carina Namih, General Partner at Episode 1 Ventures commented: “While talent is evenly distributed around the world, for too long, opportunities have not been. I have experienced first hand the challenge of hiring globally. Omnipresent has already become a crucial piece of infrastructure for global teams working across different countries.”

Joe Thornton, General Partner at Playfair Capital commented: “Remote work undoubtedly represents the future of the modern workforce. The sooner companies adapt, the sooner they will reap the massive competitive advantage associated with a globally distributed workforce, including increased workforce productivity and satisfaction and a larger and more diverse pool of talent from which to recruit workers.”

Omnipresent said its own employer surveys show that over 85% of employers will be employing remote or international employees in 2021.

Cloud infrastructure startup CloudNatix gets $4.5 million seed round led by DNX Ventures

By Catherine Shu

CloudNatix founder and chief executive officer Rohit Seth

CloudNatix founder and chief executive officer Rohit Seth. Image Credits: CloudNatix

CloudNatix, a startup that provides infrastructure for businesses with multiple cloud and on-premise operations, announced it has raised $4.5 million in seed funding. The round was led by DNX Ventures, an investment firm that focuses on United States and Japanese B2B startups, with participation from Cota Capital. Existing investors Incubate Fund, Vela Partners and 468 Capital also contributed.

The company also added DNX Ventures managing partner Hiro Rio Maeda to its board of directors.

CloudNatix was founded in 2018 by chief executive officer Rohit Seth, who previously held lead engineering roles at Google. The company’s platform helps businesses reduce IT costs by analyzing their infrastructure spending and then using automation to make IT operations across multiple clouds more efficient. The company’s typical customer spends between $500,000 to $50 million on infrastructure each year, and use at least one cloud service provider in addition on-premise networks.

Built on open-source software like Kubernetes and Prometheus, CloudNatix works with all major cloud providers and on-premise networks. For DevOps teams, it helps configure and manage infrastructure that runs both legacy and modern cloud-native applications, and enables them to transition more easily from on-premise networks to cloud services.

CloudNatix competes most directly with VMWare and Red Hat OpenShift. But both of those services are limited to their base platforms, while CloudNatix’s advantage is that is agnostic to base platforms and cloud service providers, Seth told TechCrunch.

The company’s seed round will be used to scale its engineering, customer support and sales teams.

 

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change

By Mike Butcher

Released in 2011 “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” was a book that laid claim to the idea that Israel was an unusual type of country. It had produced and was poised to produce, an enormous number of technology startups, given its relatively small size. The moniker became so ubiquitous, both at home and abroad, that “Israel Startup Nation” is now the name of the country’s professional cycling team.

But it’s been hard to argue against this position in the last ten years, as the country powered ahead, famously producing ground-breaking startups like Waze, which was eventually picked up by Google for over $1 billion in 2013. Waze’s 100 employees received about $1.2 million on average, the largest payout to employees in Israeli high tech at the time, and the exit created a pool of new entrepreneurs and angel investors ever since.

Israel’s heady mix of questioning culture, tradition of national military service, higher education, the widespread use of English, appetite for risk and team spirit makes for a fertile place for fast-moving companies to appear.

And while Israel doesn’t have a Silicon Valley, it named its high-tech cluster “Silicon Wadi” (‘wadi’ means dry desert river bed in Arabic and colloquial Hebrew).

Much of Israel’s high-tech industry has emerged from former members of the country’s elite military intelligence units such as the Unit 8200 Intelligence division. From age 13 Israel’s students are exposed to advanced computing studies, and the cultural push to go into tech is strong. Traditional professions attract low salaries compared to software professionals.

Israel’s startups industry began emerging in the late 19080s and early 1990s. A significant event came with acquisitor by AOL of the the ICQ messaging system developed by Mirabilis. The Yozma Programme (Hebrew for “initiative”) from the government, in 1993, was seminal: It offered attractive tax incentives to foreign VCs in Israel and promised to double any investment with funds from the government. This came decades ahead of most western governments.

It wasn’t long before venture capital firms started up and major tech companies like Microsoft, Google and Samsung have R&D centers and accelerators located in the country.

So how are they doing?

At the start of 2020, Israeli startups and technology companies were looking back on a good 2019. Over the last decade, startup funding for Israeli entrepreneurs had increased by 400%. In 2019 there was a 30% increase in startup funding and a 102% increase in M&A activity. The country was experiencing a 6-year upward funding trend. And in 2019 Bay Area investors put $1.4 billion into Israeli companies.

By the end of last year, the annual Israeli Tech Review 2020 showed that Israeli tech firms had raised a record $9.93 billion in 2020, up 27% year on year, in 578 transactions – but M&A deals had plunged.

Israeli startups closed out December 2020 by raising $768 million in funding. In December 2018 that figure was $230 million, in 2019 it was just under $200 million.

Late-stage companies drew in $8.33 billion, from $6.51 billion in 2019, and there were 20 deals over $100 million totaling $3.26 billion, compared to 18 totaling $2.62 billion in 2019.

Top IPOs among startups were Lemonade, an AI-based insurance firm, on the New York Stock Exchange; and life sciences firm Nanox which raised $165 million on the Nasdaq.

The winners in 2020 were cybersecurity, fintech and internet of things, with food tech cooing on strong. But while the country has become famous for its cybersecurity startups, AI now accounts for nearly half of all investments into Israeli startups. That said, every sector is experiencing growth. Investors are also now favoring companies that speak to the Covid-era, such as cybersecurity, ecommerce and remote technologies for work and healthcare.

There are currently over 30 tech companies in Israel that are valued over $1 Billion. And four startups passed the $1 billion valuation just last year: mobile game developer Moon Active; Cato Networks, a cloud-based enterprise security platform; Ride-hailing app developer Gett got $100 million ahead of its rumored IPO; and behavioral biometrics startup BioCatch.

And there was a reminder that Israel can produce truly ‘magical’ tech: Tel Aviv battery storage firm StorDot raised money from Samsung Ventures and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich for its battery which can fully charge a motor scooter in five minutes.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic put a break on mergers and acquisitions in 2020, as the world economy closed down.

M&A was just $7.8 billion in 93 deals, compared to over $14.2 billion in 143 M&A deals in 2019. RestAR was acquired by American giant Unity; CloudEssence was acquired by a U.S. cyber company; and Kenshoo acquired Signals Analytics.

And in 2020, Israeli companies made 121 funding deals on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange and global capital markets, raising a total of $6.55 billion, compared to $1.95 billion raised in capital markets in Israel and abroad in 2019, as IPOs became an attractive exit alternative.

However, early-round investments (Seed + A Rounds) slowed due to pandemic uncertainty, but picked-up again towards the end of the year. As in other countries in ‘Covid 2020’, VC tended to focus on existing portfolio companies.

Covid brought unexpected upsides: Israeli startups, usually facing longs flight to Europe or the US to raise larger rounds of funding, suddenly found that Zoom was bringing investors to them.

Israeli startups adapted extremely well in the Covid era and that doesn’t look like changing. Startup Snapshot found that 55% startups profiled had changed (or considered changing) their product due to Covid-19. Meanwhile, remote-working – which comes naturally to Israeli entrepreneurs – is ‘flattening’ the world, giving a great advantage to normally distant startup ecosystems like Israel’s.

Via Transportation raised $400 million in Q1. Next Insurance raised $250 million in Q3. Seven exit transactions with over the $500 million mark happened in Q1–Q3/2020, compared to 10 for all of 2019. These included Checkmarx for $1.1 billion and Moovit, also for a billion.

There are three main hubs for the Israeli tech scene, in order of size: Tel Aviv, Herzliya and Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s economy and therefore startup scene suffered after the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising that began in late September 2000 and ended around 2005). But today the city is far more stable, and is therefore attracting an increasing number of startups. And let’s not forget visual recognition company Mobileye, now worth $9.11 billion (£7 billion), came from Jerusalem.

Israel’s government is very supportive of it’s high-tech economy. When it noticed seed-stage startups were flagging, the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA) announced the launch of a new funding program to help seed-stage and early-stage startups, earmarking NIS 80 million ($25 million) for the project.

This will offer participating companies grants worth 40 percent of an investment round up to $1.1 million and 50 percent of a total investment round for startups in the country or whose founders come from under-represented communities – Arab-Israeli, ultra-Orthodox, and women – in the high-tech industry.

Investments in Israeli seed-stage startups decreased both absolutely and as a percentage of total investments in Israeli startups (to 6% from 11%). However, the decline may also be a function of large tech firms setting up incubation hubs to cut up and absorb talent.

Another notable aspect of Israel’s startups scene is its, sometimes halting, attempt to engage with its Arab Israeli population. Arab Israelis account for 20% of Israel’s population but are hugely underrepresented in the tech sector. The Hybrid Programme is designed to address this disparity.

It, and others like it, this are a reminder that Israel is geographically in the Middle East. Since the recent normalization pact between Israel and the UAE, relations with Arab states have begun to thaw. Indeed, Over 50,000 Israelis have visited the United Arab Emirates since the agreement.

In late November, Dubai-based DIFC FinTech Hive—the biggest financial innovation hub in the Middle East—signed a milestone agreement with Israel’s Fintech-Aviv. Both entities will now work together to facilitate the cross-border exchange of knowledge and business between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a sign that Israel is becoming more at ease with its place in the region? Certainly, both Israel’s tech scene and the Arab world’s is set to benefit from these more cordial relations.

Our Israel survey is here.

Eight Roads Ventures Europe appoints Lucile Cornet to Partner

By Mike Butcher

Lucile Cornet has been appointed Partner with Eight Roads Ventures Europe, a firm focusing on startups in Europe and Israel. Cornet is its first female Partner. Eight Roads is backed by Fidelity and has over $6 billion assets under management globally.

Cornet will be focusing on the software and fintech sectors and previously led a number of investments for the firm, having risen from Associate to Partner within five years. It’s an out of the ordinary career trajectory when VC is notorious for having a ‘no succession’ culture, unless partners effectively buy into funds.

Cornet commented: “I am hugely optimistic about what is to come for European technology entrepreneurs. We are seeing more and more amazing founders and innovative businesses across the whole European region with ambitions and abilities to become global champions, and I look forward to helping them scale up.”

Speaking with TechCrunch, Cornet added: “I feel so, so fortunate because I think we’ve been living during a once in a lifetime transformation in general in tech and also in Europe. To build some of those companies, and just be part of the ecosystem has been fantastic. I know how much more exciting things are going to be in the next couple of years.”

Cornet previously led investments into Spendesk, the Paris-based spend management platform; Thinksurance, the Frankfurt-based B2B insurtech; and Compte-Nickel, one of the first European neobanks which was successfully acquired by BNP Paribas in 2017. She also sits on the boards of VIU Eyewear, OTA Insight and Fuse Universal.

France-born Cornet’s previous career includes investment banking, Summit Partners, and she joined Eight Roads Ventures in 2015. She was a ‘rising star’ at the GP Bullhound Investor of the Year Awards 2020.

Commenting, Davor Hebel, managing partner at Eight Roads Ventures Europe, said: “We are delighted with Lucile’s success so far at Eight Roads. She has made a huge impact in Europe and globally since joining the firm. She has a tremendous work ethic and drive… identifying the best European companies and helping them scale into global winners. Her promotion also speaks to our desire to continue to develop our best investment talent and promote from within.”

Speaking to me in an interview Hebel added: “We always believed in a slightly different approach and we say when we hire people, even from the start, we want them to have judgment, and we want them to have that presence when they meet entrepreneurs. So it was always part of the model for us to say, we might not hire many people, but we really want them to have the potential to grow and stay with us and have the path and the potential to do so.”

In 2020, Eight Roads Ventures Europe invested in Cazoo, Otrium, Spendesk, Odaseva and most recently Tibber, completed eight follow-on investments and exited Rimilia. The firm also saw its portfolio company AppsFlyer reach a $2 billion valuation.

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