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Here are the top states and cities for startups in the South

Startup News - 9 hours 30 min ago

The American South may not be the first region that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “hotbed of tech entrepreneurship,” but, slightly misguided perceptions aside, it’s home to a diverse and growing collection of startups.

Here, we’re going to take a deep dive into the startup funding data for the region.

What is “the South?”

Just like it’s a common pastime for many city dwellers to argue about the precise boundaries of neighborhoods, there’s often some disagreement about the exact contours of the U.S.’s various regions. To quash rabble-rousing from the get-go, we’re using the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of “the South” on its official map of the United States. Below, we display a map of the states we’re going to look at today.

Much like barbecue, the South is not a monolithic concept. So to incorporate some regional flavor into the following analysis, we’re also going to use the same regional divisions that the U.S. Census Bureau uses.

By doing this, we’ll be able to get a better idea of the relative contribution states from each sub-region make to startup activity in the South overall.

The ebb and flow of deal and dollar volume

As is the case with most of the country, the South appears to be experiencing a shift in startup funding as we move toward the latter half of a bull run in entrepreneurial activity. The chart below shows a divergence in overall deal and dollar volume over time.

Much like in the rest of the U.S., reported deal and dollar volume are heading in different directions. Part of this may be due to reporting delays — it can sometimes take a few years for seed and early-stage rounds to get added to databases like Crunchbase’s . Nonetheless, there is a slow and generally upward creep in round sizes at most stages of funding. And that’s not just a Southern thing; it’s a country-wide trend.

Let’s disaggregate these figures a bit. We’ll start with deal counts and move on to dollar volume from there.

A closer look at southern venture deal and dollar volume

In the chart below, you’ll see venture deal volume broken out by sub-region.

Over the past several years, reported venture deal volume has been on the downswing. From a local maximum in 2014 through the end of 2017, it’s down almost 35 percent overall. But that’s not the whole picture. The relative share of deal volume has changed, as well.

Although it’s not immediately clear just by looking at the chart above, startups in the South Atlantic sub-region have accounted for an increasingly large share of the funding rounds. For example, in 2012, South Atlantic startups attracted 54 percent of the deal volume. In 2017, that grows to 64 percent. Startups in the West South Central sub-region have pretty consistently pulled in between 28 and 30 percent of the deals, so where’s the loss coming from? Startups headquartered in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama pulled in just 8 percent of deals in 2017, compared to 18 percent in 2012.

It’s a similar story with dollar volume.

In general, dollar volume follows the same pattern, albeit with a bit more variability. Regardless, startups in the South Atlantic sub-region are hoovering up an ever-larger share of venture dollars, and there’s little to indicate that trend will reverse itself any time soon.

Where are the regional hotspots for deal-making in the south?

Let’s see which states accounted for most of the deal volume. The chart below shows the geographic distribution of deal-making activity by startups in each Southern state from the beginning of 2017 through time of writing. It should come as no surprise that much of the activity is concentrated in states with higher populations.

And here’s the distribution of dollar volume among southern states.

Despite some variation in which states are at the top of the ranks, the share of deal and dollar volume raised by startups in the top three states is remarkably similar, coming in at between 52 and 53 percent for both metrics.

The top startup cities in the south

We started by looking at the South as a whole and then drilled into its sub regions and states. But there’s one layer deeper we can go here, and that’s to rank the top startup cities in the South.

In the interest of keeping our rankings fresh and timely, we’re covering activity from the past 15 months or so, from the start of 2017 through mid-March 2018. But before highlighting some of the more notable hubs, let’s take a look at the numbers.

In the chart below, you’ll find the top 10 metropolitan areas where Southern startups closed the most funding rounds.

The chart below shows reported dollar volume over the same period of time.

Much like we saw at the state level, the top five startup cities — ranked by both deal and dollar volume — are the same, although there’s some variation between where each one ranks. In order, the D.C., Austin and Atlanta metro areas rank in the top three for each metric, while Dallas and Raleigh, NC switch off between fourth and fifth place.

Startups capitalize on the nation’s capital

To be frank, Washington, D.C.’s top-shelf ranking was a bit of a surprise. It may be the fact that Austin, TX plays host to South By Southwest, a somewhat more relaxed culture and/or a preponderance of excellent breakfast taco and barbecue joints, but to many — ourselves included — the city feels like it would have a more active startup scene than the nation’s capital. But that’s not exactly the case. The D.C. metro area had more venture deal and dollar volume than Austin for seven out of the last 10 years, and startups based in the nation’s capital have raised more than twice as much money so far in 2018.

D.C.-area startups have recently raised some notable rounds. Just a couple of weeks prior to the time of writing, Viela Bio raised $250 million in a Series A round (in late February 2018) to continue funding research and testing of its treatments for severe inflammation and autoimmune diseases. And on the later-stage end of things, education technology company Everfi raised $190 million in a Series D round that had participation from Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, former Alphabet executive Eric Schmidt and Medium CEO Ev Williams. Other D.C. companies, including Mapbox,, Afiniti and ThreatQuotient, have all raised late-stage rounds within the past 15 months.

Startup ecosystems in Southern cities may pale in comparison to places like New York and San Francisco, but it wouldn’t be wise to discount the region entirely. A large number of interesting companies call the lower half of the Lower 48 home, and as the cost of living continues to rise on the east and west coasts, don’t be surprised if many current and would-be founders opt to stay down home in the South.

Categories: Business News

Late-blooming startups can still thrive

Startup News - 2018, March 18 - 2:10am

It seems like startup news is full of overnight success stories and sudden failures, like the scooter rental company that went from zero to a $300 million valuation in months or the blood-testing unicorn that went from billions to nearly naught.

But what about those other companies that mature more gradually? Is there such a thing as slow and successful in startup-land?

To contemplate that question, Crunchbase News set out to assemble a data set of top late-blooming startups. We looked at companies that were founded in or before 2010 that raised large amounts of capital after 2015, and we also looked at companies founded a least five years ago that raised large early-stage funds in the last year. (For more details on the rules we used to select the companies, check “Data Methods” at the end of the post.)

The exercise was a counterpoint to a data set we did a couple of weeks ago, looking at characteristics of the fastest growing startups by capital raised. For that list, we found plenty of similarities between members, including a preponderance of companies in a few hot sectors, many famous founders and a lot of cancer drug developers.

For the late bloomers, however, patterns were harder to pinpoint. The breakdown wasn’t too different from venture-backed companies overall. Slower-growing companies could come from major venture hubs as well as cities with smaller startup ecosystems. They could be in biotech, medical devices, mobile gaming or even meditation.

What we did find, however, was an interesting and inspiring collection of stories for those of us who’ve been toiling away at something for a long time, with hopes still of striking it big.

Pivots and patience

Even youthful startups have been known to make a major pivot or two. So it’s not surprising to see a lot of pivots among late bloomers that have had more time to tinker with their business models.

One that fits this mold is Headspace, provider of a popular meditation app. The company, founded in 2010 by a British-born Buddhist monk with a degree in circus arts, started as a meditation-focused events startup. But it turned out people wanted to build on their learning on their own time, so Headspace put together some online lessons. Today, Santa Monica-based Headspace has millions of users and has raised $75 million in venture funding.

For late bloomers, the pivot can mean going from a model with limited scalability to one that can attract a much wider audience. That’s the case with Headspace, which would have been limited in its events business to those who could physically show up. Its online model, with instant, global reach, turns the business into something venture investors can line up behind.

Sometimes your sector becomes hip

They say if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style. That mantra usually works as an excuse for hoarding ’80s clothes in the attic. But it also can apply to entrepreneurial companies, which may have launched years before their industry evolved into something venture investors were competing to back.

Take Vacasa, the vacation rental management provider. The company has been around since 2009, but it began raising VC just a couple of years ago amid a broad expansion of its staff and property portfolio. The Portland-based company has raised more than $140 million to date, all of it after 2016, and most in a $103 million October round led by technology growth investor Riverwood Capital.

CloudCraze, which was acquired by Salesforce earlier this week, also took a long time to take venture funding. The Chicago-based provider of business-to-business e-commerce software launched in 2009, but closed its first VC round in 2015, according to Crunchbase records. Prior to the acquisition, the company raised about $30 million, with most of that coming in just a year ago.

Meanwhile, some late bloomers have always been fashionable, just not necessarily as VC-funded companies. Untuckit, a clothing retailer that specializes in button-down shirts that look good untucked, had been building up its business since 2011, but closed its first venture round, a Series A led by VC firm Kleiner Perkins, last June.

Slow-growing venture-backed startups are still not that common

So yes, there is still capital available for those who wait. However, the truth of the matter is most companies that raise substantial sums of venture capital secure their initial seed rounds within a couple years of founding. Companies that chug along for five-plus years without a round and then scale up are comparatively rare.

That said, our data set, which looks at venture and seed funding, does not come close to capturing the full ecosystem of slow-growing startups. For one, many successful bootstrapped companies could raise venture funding but choose not to. And those who do eventually decide to take investment may look at other sources, like private equity, bank financing or even an IPO.

Additionally, the landscape is full of slow-growing startups that do make it, just not in a venture home run exit kind of way. Many stay local, thriving in the places they know best.

On the flip side, companies that wait a long time to take VC funding have also produced some really big exits.

Take Atlassian, the provider of workplace collaboration tools. Founded in 2002, the Australian company waited eight years to take its first VC financing, despite plentiful offers. It went public two years ago, and currently has a market valuation of nearly $14 billion.

The moral: Those who take it slow can still finish ahead.

Data methods

We primarily looked at companies founded in 2010 or earlier in the U.S. and Canada that raised a seed, Series A or Series B round sometime after the beginning of last year, and included some that first raised rounds in 2015 or later and went on to substantial fundraises. We also looked at companies founded in 2012 or earlier that raised a seed or Series A round after the beginning of last year and have raised $30 million or more to date. The list was culled further from there.

Categories: Business News

Tinder owner Match is suing Bumble over patents

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 11:47am

Drama is heating up between the dating apps.

Tinder, which is owned by Match Group, is suing rival Bumble, alleging patent infringement and misuse of intellectual property.

The suit alleges that Bumble “copied Tinder’s world-changing, card-swipe-based, mutual opt-in premise.” The lawsuit also accuses Tinder-turned-Bumble employees Chris Gulczynski and Sarah Mick of copying elements of the design. “Bumble has released at least two features that its co-founders learned of and developed confidentially while at Tinder in violation of confidentiality agreements.”

It’s complicated because Bumble was founded by CEO Whitney Wolfe, who was also a co-founder at Tinder. She wound up suing Tinder for sexual harassment. 

Yet Match hasn’t let the history stop it from trying to buy hotter-than-hot Bumble anyway. As Axios’s Dan Primack pointed out, this lawsuit may actually try to force the hand for a deal. Bumble is majority-owned by Badoo, a dating company based in London and Moscow.

(It wouldn’t be the first time a dating site sued another and then bought it. JDate did this with JSwipe.)

Match provided the following statement:

Match Group has invested significant resources and creative expertise in the development of our industry-leading suite of products. We are committed to protecting the intellectual property and proprietary data that defines our business. Accordingly, we are prepared when necessary to enforce our patents and other intellectual property rights against any operator in the dating space who infringes upon those rights.

I have, um, tested out both Tinder and Bumble and they are similar. Both let you swipe on nearby users with limited information like photos, age, school and employer. And users can only chat if both opt-in.

However, Tinder has developed more of the reputation as a “hookup” app and Bumble doesn’t seem to have quite the same image, largely because it requires women to initiate the conversation, thus setting the tone.

As TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez pointed out recently, “according to App Annie, Tinder is more than 10x bigger in terms of monthly users and 7x bigger in terms of downloads in the last 12 months, versus Bumble.”

We’ve reached out to Bumble for comment.

Categories: Business News

Enterprise subscription services provider Zuora has filed for an IPO

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 6:07am

Zuora, which helps businesses handle subscription billing and forecasting, filed for an initial public offering this afternoon following on the heels of Dropbox’s filing earlier this month.

Zuora’s IPO may signal that Dropbox going public, and seeing a price range that while under its previous valuation seems relatively reasonable, may open the door for coming enterprise initial public offerings. Cloud security company Zscaler also made its debut earlier this week, with the stock doubling once it began trading on the Nasdaq. Zuora will list on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker “ZUO.” Zuora CEO Tien Tzuo told The Information in October last year that it expected to go public this year.

Zuora’s numbers show some revenue growth, with its subscriptions services continue to grow. But its losses are a bit all over the place. While the costs for its subscription revenues is trending up, the costs for its professional services are also increasing dramatically, going from $6.2 million in Q4 2016 to $15.6 million in Q4 2017. The company had nearly $50 million in overall revenue in the fourth quarter last year, up from $30 million in Q4 2016.

But, as we can see, Zuora’s “professional services” revenue is an increasing share of the pie. In Q1 2016, professional services only amounted to 22% of Zuora’s revenue, and it’s up to 31% in the fourth quarter last year. It also accounts for a bigger share of Zuora’s costs of revenue, but it’s an area that it appears to be investing more.

Zuora’s core business revolves around helping companies with subscription businesses — like, say, Dropbox — better track their metrics like recurring revenue and retention rates. Zuora is riding a wave of enterprise companies finding traction within smaller teams as a free product and then graduating them into a subscription product as more and more people get on board. Eventually those companies hope to have a formal relationship with the company at a CIO level, and Zuora would hopefully grow up along with them.

Snap effectively opened the so-called “IPO window” in March last year, but both high-profile consumer IPOs — Blue Apron and Snap — have had significant issues since going public. While both consumer companies, it did spark a wave of enterprise IPOs looking to get out the door like Okta, Cardlytics, SailPoint and Aquantia. There have been other consumer IPOs like Stitch Fix, but for many firms, enterprise IPOs serve as the kinds of consistent returns with predictable revenue growth as they eventually march toward an IPO.

The filing says it will raise up to $100 million, but you can usually ignore that as it’s a placeholder. Zuora last raised $115 million in 2015, and was PitchBook data pegged the valuation at around $740 million, according to the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Benchmark Capital and Shasta Ventures are two big investors in the company, with Benchmark still owning around 11.1% of the company and Shasta Ventures owning 6.5%. CEO Tien Tzuo owns 10.2% of the company.

Categories: Business News

GrokStyle’s visual search tech makes it into IKEA’s Place AR app

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 3:35am

GrokStyle’s simple concept of “point your camera at a chair (or lamp, or table…) and find others like it for sale” attracted $2 million in funding last year, and the company has been putting that cash to work. And remarkably for a company trying to break into the home furnishing market, it landed furniture goliath IKEA as its first real customer; GrokStyle’s point-and-search functionality is being added to the IKEA Place AR app.

What GrokStyle does, in case you don’t remember, is identify any piece of furniture your camera can see — in your house, at a store, in a catalog — and immediately return similar pieces or even the exact one, with links to buy them.

I remember being skeptical last year that the product could possibly work as well as they said it did. But a demo shut my mouth real quick. The growing team is led by Sean Bell and Kavita Bala, who spun GrokStyle out of their work on computer vision at Cornell University — and it’s clear they know what they’re doing.

GrokStyle’s tech in action grabbing an image from a catalog.

IKEA thought so as well. In December, Bell and Bala got a chance to present it to Michael Valdsgaard, IKEA’s “Leader of Digital Transformation.” He loved it.

“He just said, ‘OK, this needs to be in the next release,'” recalled Bell, “and in 3 months we were able to turn it around for them.”

It seemed as clear to Valdsgaard as it is to GrokStyle that the advent of mixed reality in all its forms necessitates a fundamentally different kind of search. If information is to be presented and mixed visually, why shouldn’t you be able to find and browse things the same way?

“To make AR work, that’s where you really need tech like visual search,” said Bala. “It lets you find things, cool designs and furniture, all in situ and visualize it in place.”

What’s more, she noted, images and video are just how people communicate and record things now. “People take pictures of absolutely everything. If you want to remember someone’s phone number, sometimes you just take a picture of it. That’s the world we’re living in now.”

Being able to search among a visual record is a powerful tool, and one few companies have unlocked in any kind of powerful way. GrokStyle could very easily have overshot to begin with and tried to offer consumers an app that categorizes and searches among your photos and others, but that way lies great cost and questionable utility.

I originally thought that furniture was a rather prosaic and narrow field in which to deploy their obviously effective tech, but in fact it was a very wise choice. IKEA is a big get, but in the long term it’s the narrow end of a wedge.

“We’re also building recommendation systems and business intelligence tools,” Bala said. “Once you see what people are searching for, there are tons of opportunities.”

Imagine, for example, someone using GrokStyle’s tech while shopping at Crate and Barrel. They scan an item, see how it would look in their living room, then see a similar but slightly cheaper one available from a competitor. This is a critical moment in retail: the moment when Crate and Barrel and this other retailer compete for the consumer’s attention and money. Being at the center of that is a propitious position.

For now the plan is to execute on IKEA and get the knowledge out there that this exists and works well enough to be adopted by a major retailer. “We’re inviting retailers to come talk to us, and as part of working with them we’re setting up pilots and things,” said Bell. APIs are also in the offing.

As a sort of cherry on top of all this, the company also recently secured another $750K in grants from the National Science Foundations. GrokStyle had received $225K as part of the Small Business Innovation Research program, and successfully competed for the other three-quarters of a million up for grabs in Phase II. That ought to keep the lights on for a while.

Categories: Business News

Village Global raises $100M seed scout fund from Zuck, Bezos…

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 2:02am

It takes a village to grow a startup, so Village Global is offering access to a deep network of top tech execs to lure founders to its seed fund. Today, Village Global announced it’s raised $100 million for that fund that was first unveiled in September.

In exchange for equity, portfolio companies get investment plus mentorship from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s BIll Gates, Google’s Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, Disney’s Bob Iger, VMWare’s Diane Green, NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg, and more.

Village Global also announced its 90-day intensive Network Catalyst program that sees the fund get more involved in developing a startup’s product and connections. It takes 7 percent for an $120,000 investment plus admission to the program. Erik Torenberg, Product Hunt’s first employee and a founding partner of Village Global tells me that with the program “Founders get a ‘brain trust’ assembled to fit their needs and to introduce talent, customers and investors.”

“I really think of Village Global as a co-founder at Keyo” says actual Keyo co-founder Kiran Bellubbi whose real estate startup we wrote about last week. “We’ve ideated, strategized and built this business from the ground up together in under 3 months. Couldn’t have done it without this team. The pace of play is astonishing.”

Newly announced LPs and mentors for Village Global include Fidelity’s Abby Johnson, Activision’s Bobby Kotick, 23andme’s Anne Wojcicki, and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. The question is how much these mentors will actually engage with the portfolio companies instead of just being figureheads. The program reminds me of Jay-Z’s Tidal, which signed artists like Daft Punk and Jack White as owners, but only a few like Kanye have actually done much for the company. Reid Hoffman did recently sit down with Village Global companies, though, as seen above. Village Global’s other partners like LinkedIn’s Ben Casnocha, 500 Startups’ Adam Corey, Chegg’s Anne Dwane, and SuccessFactors’ Ross Fubini will have to keep the big-wigs present.

Most venture funds today have a slew of general partners searching for and leading deals. A few have expansive service arms like Andreessen Horowitz’s recruiting program or GV’s design assistance. But Village Global’s approach is to have just a few partners but a ton of scouts that earn a portion of the returns if they bring in a great startup. These “network leaders” include Quora vice president Sarah Smith and YouTube’s VR lead Erin Teague. Rather than connect them to more tangible services, portfolio companies get access to Village Global’s deep mentor bench.

Other big funds have their own scout programs too that Village Global will have to compete with. The Wall Street Journal reported that Accel Partners, Founders Fund, Index Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Social Capital and Sequoia are among the top tier funds that use scouts to sniff out early stage deals. Others like First Round’s Dorm Room Fund and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft Ventures use student ambassadors on university campuses to identify high potential college startups.

It’s unclear whether letting younger, less experienced scouts write check is good for their funds or their own track records, and whether these scouts are shirking responsibilities from their own companies. But for founders, it means there are more people with their ears to the street who aren’t already famous finance big-shots. That could promote more meritocracy in an industry known for talking a lot about it despite tons of privilege given to founders of certain complexions or pedigrees.

With increased competition in the seed stage, funds can’t wait for founders to come to them any more.

Categories: Business News

NexGenT wants to rethink bootcamps with programs for network engineering certifications

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 2:00am

Developer bootcamps — several-month training programs that are designed to help people get up to speed with the technical skills they need to become a developer — exploded in popularity in the early part of the decade, but there’s been a bit of a shakedown on the space recently.

And that could be a product of a lot of things, but for Jacob Hess and Terry Kim, it’s just not enough time to become a fully-fledged developer. With training in the Air Force, where both had to work on these kinds of compressed programs for entry-level technicians, both decided to try their own approach. The end result is NexGenT, which is own kind of bootcamp — but it’s for getting a certificate in network management, and not a one-size-fits-all sticker as a developer. That approach, which includes a 16-week class, is considerably more reasonable and helps get people industry-ready with a skill that’s teachable in that compressed period of time, Hess says. The company is launching out of Y Combinator’s winter class this year.

“There are 500,000 open IT jobs, but when you look at that number, what’s more interesting is so many of them are IT operation roles, and the remaining is software development,” Hess said. “The bigger pie in IT is non-software programming jobs. Cyber security is also huge because of the automation and AI. We want to create the stepping stone. Network engineering becomes a foundation for a lot of these jobs, whether you want to be a cloud architect and work for Amazon, it all starts with understanding and building a foundation around networking.”

The end result is a 16-week program where a batch of applicants gets a review, and a percentage of them are accepted into a cohort of students. They go through an engineering module, which teaches them the basics and mechanics of network engineering and learn about the IT industry. Students can go faster if they want — it’s primarily online — and then start working on labs where they are building their own lab, either physical or virtual. The process culminates in a project where the students have to roll out an HQ facility in two branch offices from design to technically implementing it.

The next phase is about getting them certifications for various technologies, which help them basically show that they are ready to start entering the workforce. Think of it as something similar to having a Github account where prospective employers can review the work, except the process is a lot more formalized and you end up with something concrete on the resume. The final phase is around career coaching and helping them get a job, which can last up to 6 months. Throughout this process, students have access to a mentor and live coaching where students can ask whatever questions they wish.

So, the process is not so dissimilar from the notion of a developer bootcamp. But at the same time, there’s a small-ish graveyard of developer bootcamps and some with issues. Galvanize in August said it would lay off around 11% of its staff, while Dev Bootcamp and Iron Yard shut down altogether. The knock on these camps is it’s hard to get developers ready to start shipping code in such a small period of time — but Kim argues that getting them certified and ready to be a network engineer is definitely something that’s doable in around 16 weeks.

“It’s more realistic,” Kim said. “For coding bootcamps, you have to go by off the portfolios and check their Github, and they have to pass that technical interview. In our world of IT operations, it’s not about the bachelor’s degree, it’s about the person having the knowledge. But the industry certifications come from third parties, and when they come out of our program and have two or three certifications. It’s enough to get into that entry-level job.”

It remains to be seen if this kind of an approach is going to work. NexGenT charges a tuition — around $12,000, which with maximum discounts hits around $6,500. The company offers a 36-month payment plan as well that comes with an enrollment fee, which stretches out that very steep ticket price. In reality, these zero-to-60 programs are designed to be for-profit, though there are some different models that take in a percentage of salary among other approaches. With that in mind, though, there’s always an opportunity to build a strong pipeline with certain companies, and if they can identify high-performing students they can offer more of a proof point and potentially use that as an opportunity to offer some variation of scholarship.

While this is more of a bootcamp-ish style program, there are already some IT certification programs through tools like Coursera. Google, in one instance, is offering financial aid for a batch of those students, and companies with deep pockets might be able to build out these kinds of pipeline programs on their own. Hess and Kim hope to offer some kind of high-touch approach, instead of just a class on a platform of many, that will give them an edge to be a preferred option.

Categories: Business News

Small businesses love free stuff, so Gusto is giving them free HR Basics

Startup News - 2018, March 17 - 1:32am

Gusto, formerly ZenPayroll, is the rare startup unicorn that has stayed relatively mum on its product and growth — its last press release, for instance, was more than a year ago. The company’s core offering remains payroll for small businesses, and it has been working to expand its customer base across the nation, including having its CEO, Joshua Reeves, go on a tour of the country to visit SMBs in an RV.

Now the company is opening up a bit on its recent progress. Gusto has just hit 60,000 customers nationwide, or roughly 1% of all employers in the United States, according to the company.

The company is also working on new products. One challenge small businesses face is getting access to high-quality, yet affordable, software, particularly in HR. “Small businesses actually get that people are the core more than large companies,” Reeves explained to me. “In a 10-person company, you know everyone, your customers are your neighbors, but they never really had access to high-quality software.”

Gusto is hoping to fill that gap, announcing the beta launch of a new product it’s calling HR Basics. The product offers a suite of tools for small businesses to handle the quotidian tasks of HR, including managing vacation time, compiling employee directories and improving the onboarding of new hires. Most importantly, the product is free, and doesn’t require a credit card or a bank account to sign up.

Reeves believes that Gusto has two purposes: to offer “peace of mind” to small business owners around areas like compliance that can lead to negative enforcement actions, and to provide software that can help companies become “great places to work” that are more focused on community. Reeves is particularly passionate about the latter point. “Even the terminology ‘human capital management’ — humans are not capital, humans are not resources, they are people, thank you very much.”

One particular area of focus for HR Basics is around onboarding. Gusto is hoping it can move all HR paperwork online, so that everything required to officially onboard an employee can be done even before the employee walks into work the first day. With that out of the way, Gusto can then focus on helping companies create the right corporate culture. For instance, the product offers a “Welcome Wall” where other employees can write cheerful and encouraging notes for a new employee to make them feel like they belong at the company from day one.

The Welcome Wall is designed to encourage new employees joining a company

This new product is free for businesses, and Gusto obviously hopes that it creates a funnel of potential customers who will eventually sign up for its payroll service and full HR platform, which charge around $6-12 a month per employee based on the specific plan that a business chooses.

One interesting commitment Gusto is making according to Reeves is that an employee’s profile on the platform will be a lifetime account. If an employee moves from one company to the next and both use Gusto, all of the preferences and other data required to administer HR should work immediately.

That portability mattered less in a world where employees spent decades at a single company, but now that employees often switch employers as often as every year, the repeated savings of time in the transition can be quite significant. Longer term, Gusto sees that sort of portability as critical for facilitating the changing nature of work in the 21st century.

Gusto, which was founded in 2011, is now entering middle age, and the company has 530 employees across its San Francisco and Denver offices, according to Reeves.

Update: Added the number of customers Gusto currently has.

Categories: Business News

Reverie Labs uses new machine learning algorithms to fix drug development bottlenecks

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 10:15pm

Developing new medicines can take years of research and cost millions of dollars before they are even ready for clinical trials. Several biotech startups are using machine learning to revolutionize the process and get drugs into pharmacies more quickly. One of the newest is called Reverie Labs, which is part of Y Combinator’s latest batch. The Boston-based company wants to fix a critical bottleneck in the drug development process by speeding up the process of identifying promising molecules using recently published machine learning algorithms.

Reverie Labs’ founders Connor Duffy, Ankit Gupta and Jonah Kallenbach, who named their company after a pivotal detail in the HBO series “Westworld,” explain that its tech analyzes early ideas for molecules from pharmaceutical scientists and suggests possible improvements to shorten the amount of time it takes to reach clinical trials. Duffy says Reverie Labs’ ambition is to “become a full service molecule-as-a-service company.” It’s already partnered with several biotech companies and academic institutes working on treatments for diseases including influenza and cancer.

Reverie Labs specializes in the lead development stage, which is when researchers focus on prioritizing and optimizing molecules so they can go to animal and human clinical trials more quickly. Pharmaceutical scientists need to first identify the proteins that cause a disease and then find molecular compounds that can bind to those proteins. Then it becomes a process of elimination as they narrow down those molecules to ones that not only create the results they want, but are also suitable for animal and human studies.

Before clinical trials can start, however, they need to evaluate molecules very carefully in order to understand things like how they are metabolized by the body and their potential toxicity.

“I’ve heard it compared to juggling eight balls at once or playing whack-a-mole,” says Duffy. “You want your compound to be very safe before you put it in people, you want to be efficacious and go where you want it to go in your body and you don’t want side effects. There are a lot of problems drug companies need to think about before putting a molecule in a human, and when you fix one problem, you often come up with another problem. We want to alleviate that by looking at all problems at the same time.”

Lead development is very labor intensive and requires the work of many medicinal chemists. Reverie Labs’ founders say it often takes more than $100 million and two years per drug before a final selection of molecules are ready for clinical trials. Reverie Labs wants to set itself apart from other startups focused on solving the same problem by taking recently-discovered machine learning techniques, and applying them to drug development.

“The machine learning algorithms we implemented are some of the most promising advances that have been published in the past couple of years,” says Kallenbach.

First, molecules are “featurized,” or turned into representations that work with machine learning algorithms. Reverie Labs’s tech creates proprietary featurizations based on quantum chemical calculations, then uses them to analyze the molecules’ properties and how they may act in the body. Afterwards, it selects molecules that have the potential to do well in clinical trials or suggests new molecules based on what properties scientists need.

In addition to the machine learning algorithms it uses, Reverie Labs founders say one of the startup’s key differentiators is that it trains its models on customers’ proprietary in-house datasets, which means the tech can integrate more smoothly into existing drug development workflows. Reverie Labs’ software also runs on customers’ virtual private clouds, giving them more security.

While using artificial intelligence to develop new drugs seemed almost like science fiction just a few years ago, the space is developing quickly. Last month, BenevolentAI, one of the first companies to apply deep learning to drug discovery, bought biotech company Promixagen’s operations in the United Kingdom, which it says will make it the first artificial intelligence company to cover the entire drug research and development process. Atomwise, another AI-based drug discovery startup, announced at the beginning of this month that it has raised a $45 million Series A. Other notable startups include Nimbus Therapeutics and Recursion Pharmaceuticals.

The process of creating new drugs is currently very complicated, slow and extremely expensive. With so much room for improvement, the work done by various AI-based startups to improve the process don’t necessarily overlap.

“The space doesn’t seem like a zero sum game at all,” says Gupta. “Many players can be involved and the fact that other startups are interested shows that there is legitimacy to the technology.”

“The end result is trying to delivery life-saving cures faster and more cheaply,” adds Duffy. “We don’t really feel any competitiveness. We want everyone to succeed.”

Categories: Business News

Equity podcast: Theranos’s reckoning, BroadQualm’s stunning conclusion and Lyft’s platform ambitions

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 10:10pm

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

This week Katie Roof and I were joined by Mayfield Fund’s Navin Chaddha, an investor with early connections with Lyft to talk about, well, Lyft — as well as two bombshell news events in the form of an SEC fine for Theranos and Broadcom’s hostile takeover efforts for Qualcomm hitting the brakes. Alex Wilhelm was not present this week but will join us again soon (we assume he was tending to his Slayer shirt collection).

Starting off with Lyft, there was quite a bit of activity for Uber’s biggest competitor in North America. The ride-sharing startup (can we still call it a startup?) said it would be partnering with Magna to “co-develop” an autonomous driving system. Chaddha talks a bit about how Lyft’s ambitions aren’t to be a vertical business like Uber, but serve as a platform for anyone to plug into. We’ve definitely seen this play out before — just look at what happened with Apple (the closed platform) and Android (the open platform). We dive in to see if Lyft’s ambitions are actually going to pan out as planned. Also, it got $200 million out of the deal.

Next up is Theranos, where the SEC investigation finally came to a head with founder Elizabeth Holmes and former president Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were formally charged by the SEC for fraud. The SEC says the two raised more than $700 million from investors through an “elaborate, years-long fraud in which they exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.” You can find the full story by TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos here, and we got a chance to dig into the implications of what it might mean for how investors scope out potential founders going forward. (Hint: Chaddha says they need to be more careful.)

Finally, BroadQualm is over. After months of hand-wringing over whether or not Broadcom would buy — and then commit a hostile takeover — of the U.S. semiconductor giant, the Trump administration blocked the deal. A cascading series of events associated with the CFIUS, a government body, got it to the point where Broadcom’s aggressive dealmaker Hock Tan dropped plans to go after Qualcomm altogether. The largest deal of all time in tech will, indeed, not be happening (for now), and it has potentially pretty big implications for M&A going forward.

That’s all for this week, we’ll catch you guys next week. Happy March Madness, and may fortune favor* your brackets.

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

assuming you have Duke losing before the elite 8.

Categories: Business News

Detectify raises €5M for its crowdsourced website vulnerability scanner

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 6:00pm

Sweden-based Detectify, which offers a website vulnerability scanner that is in part powered by the crowd, has raised €5 million in new funding. The round was led by New York-based venture capital and private equity firm, Insight Venture Partners. Existing investors, Paua Ventures and Inventure, also participated.

Founded in late 2013 by a self-described group of “white-hat hackers” from Sweden, the now 20-person strong company offers a website security tool that uses automation to scan websites for vulnerabilities to help customers (i.e. developers) stay on top of security. The more unique part of the service, however, is that it is in part maintained — or, rather, kept up to date — via the crowd in the form of Detectify’s ethical hacker network.

This sees top-ranked security researchers submit vulnerabilities that are then built into the Detectify scanner and used in customers’ security tests. The really clever part is that researchers get paid every time their submitted module identifies a vulnerability on a customer’s website. In other words, incentives are always kept aligned, giving Detectify a potential advantage and greater scale compared to similar website security automation tools.

“Companies are building applications and users happily enter their data into these applications, but the applications are built from mix of technologies that are changing rapidly (open source, plugins, funky js-frameworks), without a clear vendor “responsible” for the security,” says Detectify co-founder and CEO Rickard Carlsson, explaining the problem the startup set out to solve.

“As no clear vendor is responsible for communicating about security [as compared to a Windows patch, for example], the knowledge sits in the community. We wanted to build a platform that takes the knowledge from white-hat and supercharges it with automation”.

Put more simply, developers typically have a long backlog of things to do and security testing often “falls between the cracks” because of limited time. It’s also near-impossible for any single developer to manually security test their code while keeping up with the latest vulnerabilities. By using automation, the wisdom of the crowd, and via integrations with popular developer tools, Detectify aims to help catch security issues before every new release and as part of a developer’s normal workflow.

To that end, Detectify already counts customers spanning a range of industries and company sizes, including Trello, Le Monde, and King. “It might have been easier to target a specific segment but we have a land and expand strategy. We also aim to make the internet a safer place, hence we want to offer our solution to organisations of all sizes,” says Carlsson.

Meanwhile, he does concede that automated vulnerability scanning tools aren’t new, but says one key difference is that the Detectify team comes from the world of ethical hacking instead of the world of compliance. “Our tool offers a great UI/UX, high-quality results and the latest security tests thanks to our crowdsourcing,” he adds.

Categories: Business News

Stock trade app Robinhood raising at $5B+, up 4X in a year

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 7:55am

By adding a cryptocurrency exchange, a web version and stock option trading, Robinhood has managed to quadruple its valuation in a year, according to a source familiar with a new round the startup is raising. Robinhood is closing in on around $350 million in Series D funding led by Russian firm DST Global, the source says. That’s just 11 months after Robinhood confirmed TechCrunch’s scoop that the zero-fee stock trading app had raised a $110 million Series C at a $1.3 billion valuation. The new raise would bring Robinhood to $526 million in funding.

Details of the Series D were first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

The astronomical value growth shows that investors see Robinhood as a core part of the mobile finance tools upon which the next generation will rely. The startup also just proved its ability to nimbly adapt to trends by building its cryptocurrency trading feature in less than two months to make sure it wouldn’t miss the next big economic shift. One million users waitlisted for access in just the five days after Robinhood Crypto was announced.

The launch completed a trio of product debuts. The mobile app finally launched a website version for tracking and trading stocks without a commission in November. In December it opened options trading, making it a more robust alternative to brokers like E*Trade and Scottrade. They often charge $7 or more per stock trade compared to zero with Robinhood, but also give away features that are reserved for Robinhood’s premium Gold subscription tier.

Robinhood won’t say how many people have signed up for its $6 to $200 per month Gold service that lets people trade on margin, with higher prices netting them more borrowing power. That and earning interest on money stored in Robinhood accounts are the startup’s primary revenue sources.

Rapid product iteration and skyrocketing value surely helped recruit Josh Elman, who Robinhood announced yesterday has joined as VP of product as he transitions to a part-time roll at Greylock Partners. He could help the company build a platform business as a backbone for other fintech apps, they way he helped Facebook build its identity platform.

In effect, Robinhood has figured out how to make stock trading freemium. Rather than charge per trade with bonus features included, Robinhood gives away the bare-bones trades and charges for everything else. That could give it a steady, scalable business model akin to Dropbox, which grew by offering small amounts of free storage and then charging for extras and enterprise accounts. From a start with free trades, Robinhood could blossom into a hub for your mobile finance life.

Categories: Business News

FitHouse aims to make fancy fitness classes more affordable

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 6:56am

Fitness-oriented New Yorkers aren’t facing a shortage of classes that they can sign up for, but the prices can add up — Clément Benoit, founder of a new startup called FitHouse, said boutique classes cost an average of $35 per session.

FitHouse, on the other hand, is charging $99 per month for unlimited classes. Contrast that not just with a traditional studio, but also with ClassPass, where pricing in NYC ranges from $45 (for two to four classes) to $135 (for eight to 12 classes) per month.

In many ways, FitHouse offers a more traditional model than ClassPass — instead of giving subscribers access to a classes run by other studios and instructors, it’s building a studio of its own. Benoit said this gives the company more control over the experience, and a bigger piece of the revenue, which he said “we redistribute to both the user and the instructors.”

Beyond the pricing, Benoit said FitHouse also stands out because of its approach to real estate. It’s looking to take over empty spaces that require a minimum amount of investment to make them ready for classes. And it’s signing six-month leases with the possibility of a longer-term extension, so that it can quickly spin up new locations in new neighborhoods, with a minimum of risk.

FitHouse has already opened its first location in New York’s Bowery neighborhood, with plans to launch 12 locations across the city over the next year.

Clément Benoit

Benoit also said he’s attracting the best instructors by putting them front-and-center in FitHouse’s marketing and scheduling, and by paying them 10 to 25 percent more than they’d normally make to teach a class. (Though to be clear, these instructors aren’t working with FitHouse exclusively.)

Benoit, by the way, is a tech entrepreneur who sold his last-mile delivery startup Stuart to GeoPost last year. (And he’s already raised a $3 million round from Global Founders Capital, Xavier Niel and Fabrice Grinda.) He admitted that FitHouse’s technology isn’t the most flashy part of the offering, but he said it’s still important that the startup created its own frontend and backend infrastructure.

“Just the fact that we have information on the user, we can deliver a personalized check in: You came last week, you had a great class with this instructor, how did you like it?” he said. “No studio does that. They don’t control the tech.”

Categories: Business News

TheSkimm raises $12 million for its snarky newsletters

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 6:03am

Seven million women (and men) love theSkimm. 

With its daily newsletters designed to keep you in the loop on the latest news and pop culture, theSkimm has developed a loyal following, and even recruits fans called “Skimm’bassadors” to help spread the word.

That word-of-mouth hype is helping, and the startup has seen enough growth to warrant more funding. TheSkimm is announcing a $12 million round led by GV (Google Ventures), with participation from Spanx founder Sara Blakely as well as existing investors like RRE Ventures and Homebrew.

Co-founded in 2012 in New York by former TV news producers Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, the company has expanded beyond its newsletters targeting millennial women and offers subscription products, too. TheSkimm’s app includes a calendar of upcoming news and televised events. It also has podcasts and an e-commerce business.

Revenue is said to have more than doubled year over year since 2016, partly due to the subscriptions, but also due to native advertising and affiliate licensing. The staff has doubled, as well, and recently moved into a new headquarters.

The latest funding, which adds to the more than $16 million already raised, will be used to add more subscription services and also further expand into video and podcasting.

TheSkimm also has plans for data analysis.


Categories: Business News

Volley’s voice games for smart speakers have amassed over half a million monthly users

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 4:31am

The rapid consumer adoption of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home has opened opportunities for developers creating voice apps, too. At least that’s true in the case of Volley, a young company building voice-controlled entertainment experiences for Amazon Alexa and Google Home. In less than a year, Volley has amassed an audience north of 500,000 monthly active users across its suite of voice apps, and has been growing that active base of users at 50 to 70 percent month-over-month.

The company was co-founded by former Harvard roommates and longtime friends, Max Child and James Wilsterman, and had originally operated as an iOS consultancy. But around a year and a half ago, Volley shifted its focus to voice instead.

“When we were running the iOS business, we were always sort of hacking around on games and some stuff on the side for fun,” explains Child. “We made a trivia game for iOS. And we made a Facebook Messenger chatbot virtual pet,” he says. The trivia game they built let users play just by swiping on push notifications — a very lightweight form of gameplay they thought was intriguing. “Voice was sort of the obvious next step,” says Child.

Not all their voice games have been successful, however. The first to launch was a game called Spelling Bee that users struggled with because of Alexa’s difficulties in identifying single letters — it would confuse a “B,” “C,” “D” and “E,” for example. But later titles have taken off.

Volley’s name-that-tune trivia game “Song Quiz” was its first breakout hit, and has grown to become the No. 1 game by reviews. The game today has a five-star rating across 8,842 reviews.

Another big hit is Volley’s “Yes Sire,” a choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling game that’s also at the top of Alexa’s charts. It also has a five-star rating, across 1,031 reviews.

The company says it has more than a dozen live titles, with the majority on the Alexa Skill Store and a few for Google Assistant/Google Home. But it only has seven or eight in what you would consider “active development.”

Unlike some indie developers who are struggling to generate revenue from their voice applications, Volley has been moderately successful thanks to Amazon’s developer rewards program — the program that doles out cash payments to top performing skills. While the startup didn’t want to disclose exact numbers, it says it’s earning in the five-figure range monthly from Amazon’s program.

In addition, Volley is preparing to roll out its own monetization features, including subscriptions and in-app purchases of add-on packs that will extend gameplay.

The company’s games have been well-received for a variety of reasons, but one is that they allow people to play together at the same time — like a modern-day replacement for family game night, perhaps.

“I think a live multiplayer experience with your family or people you’re good friends with, where you can have a fun time together in a room is fairly unusual. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t crowd around my iPhone and play games with my friends. And even with consoles there are significant barriers in understanding how to play,” says Child.

“I think that voice enables the live social experience in a way that anyone from five years old to 85 years old can pick up immediately. I think that’s really special. And I think we’re just at the beginning. I’m not going to say we’ve got it all figured out — but I think that’s powerful and unique to these platforms,” he adds.

Volley raised more than a million in seed funding ahead of joining Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 class, in a round led by Advancit Capital. Other investors include Amplify.LA, Rainfall, Y Combinator, MTGx, NFX and angels Hany Nada, Mika Salmi and Richard Wolpert.

The startup is currently a team of six in San Francisco.


Categories: Business News

Airbnb makes service more accessible to people with disabilities

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 2:32am

Airbnb has made some changes to its platform in order to make it easier for people with disabilities to find accommodations that suit their needs. The 21 new accessibility filters Airbnb has added enable people to find homes and apartments that have step-free entry to rooms, entryways wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, elevators, roll-in showers with a chair and more.

Airbnb guests were previously able to search for wheelchair accessible listings, but that was it. In order to determine the appropriate filters, Airbnb worked with the California Council of the Blind, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers and the National Council on Independent Living.

Airbnb’s willingness to be inclusive of people with disabilities comes in light of Lyft and Uber facing lawsuits over the lack of options available for people who use wheelchairs. Moving forward, Airbnb says it will work with its hosts and guests to ensure the filters are useful and accurate.

“The introduction of the new accessibility features and filters to all hosts and guests is just the first stage in our journey to improve accessibility at Airbnb,” Airbnb Accessibility Product and Program Manager Srin Madipalli said in a blog post. “We encourage everyone to use them and send through their feedback.”

Categories: Business News

Here’s why Spotify will go public via direct listing on April 3rd

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 2:12am

Spotify explained why it’s ditching the traditional IPO for a direct listing on the NYSE on April 3rd today during its Investor Day presentation. With no lockup period and no intermediary bankers, Spotify thinks it can go public without all the typical shenanigans.

Spotify described the rationale for using a direct listing with five points:

  • List Without Selling Shares  – Spotify has plent of money with $1.3 billion in cash and securities, has no debt since it converted that into equity for investors, and has positive free cash flow
  • Liquidity – Investors and employees can sell on public market and sell at time of their choosing without investors shorting a lockup expiration, while new investors can join in
  • Equal Access – Bankers won’t get preferred access. Instead, the whole world will get access at the same time. “No underwriting syndicate, no limited float, no IPO allocations, no preferential treatment”.
  • Transparency – Spotify wants to show the facts about its business to everyone via today’s presentation, rather than giving more info to bankers in closed door meetings
  • Market-Driven Price Discovery – Rather than setting a specific price with bankers, Spotify will let the public decide what it’s worth. “We think the wisdom of crowds trumps expert intervention”.

Spotify won’t wait for the direct listing, and on March 26th will announce first quarter and 2018 guidance before markets open. It also announced today that there will be no lock-up period, so employees can start selling their shares immediately. This prevents a looming lock-up period expiration that can lead to a dump of shares on the market that sinks the price from spooking investors.

It’s unclear exactly what Spotify will be valued at on April 3rd, but during 2018 its shares have traded on the private markets for between $90 and $132.50, valuing the company at $23.4 billion at the top of the range. The music streaming service now has 159 million monthly active users (up 29 percent in 2017) and 71 million paying subscribers (up 46 percent in 2017.

During CEO Daniel Ek’s presentation, he explained that Spotify emerged as an alternative to piracy by convenience to make paying or ad-supported access easier than stealing. Now he sees the company as the sole leading music streaming service that’s a dedicated music company, subtly throwing shade at Apple, Google, and Amazon. “We’re not focused on selling hardware. We’re not focused on selling books. We’re focused on selling music and connecting artists with fans” said Ek.

Head of R&D Gustav Soderstrom outlined Spotify’s ubiquity strategy, opposed to trying to lock users into a “single platform ecosystem”. He says Spotify does “what’s best for the user and not for the company, and trying to solve the users’ problems by being everywhere.” That’s more shade for Apple, who’s HomePod only works with Apple Music despite customers obviously wishing they could play other streaming services through it.

By now being baked into a wide range of third-party hardware through the Spotify Connect program, Soderstrom says Spotify gets a more holistic understanding of its listeners. He declared that Spotify has 5X as much personalization data as its next closest competitor, and that allows it to know what to play you next. He cheekily calls this “self-driving music”.

By directing what people listen to, Spotify becomes the new top 40 radio — the hit-maker. That gives it leverage over the record labels so Spotify can get better licensing deals and favorable treatment. Now over 30 percent of Spotify listening is based on its own programming through featured playlists, artists, and more.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek giving the Investor Day presentation

Wall Street loves a two-sided marketplace, so Spotify is positioning itself in the middle of artists and fans, with each side attracting the other. It’s both selling music streaming services to listeners, and selling the tools to reach and monetize those listeners to musicians. That’s both on its platform, and using its targeting and analytics info to deliver efficient ticket and merchandise promotions elsewhere. Ek discussed the flywheel that drives Spotify’s business, explaining that the more people discover music, the more they listen, and the more artists that become successful on the platform, and the more artists will embrace the platform and bring their fans.

Yet with music catalogues and prices mostly similar across the industry, Spotify will have to depend on its personalized recommendations and platform-agnositic strategy to beat its deep pocketed competitors. Music isn’t going away, so whoever can lock in listeners now at the dawn of streaming could keep coining off them for decades. That’s why Spotify not raising cash for marketing through a traditional IPO is a strange choice. But with its focus on playlists and suggestion data, Spotify could build melodic handcuffs for its listeners who wouldn’t dream of starting from scratch on a competitor.

You can follow along with the presentation here.

For more on Spotify’s not-an-IPO, check out our feature piece:

Going public pits Spotify’s suggestions against everyone

Categories: Business News

We want to hear about your robotics company

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 1:00am

As you might have heard, last year’s TC Robotics event in Boston was such a hit we’ve decided to do it again — only on the West Coast, this time. On Friday, May 11, we’ll be holding TC Sessions: Robotics on the U.C. Berkeley campus. We’ve got a lot of big industry luminaries lined up that we can’t wait to tell you about, but in the meantime, we’d like to hear from you.

We’re going to have several opportunities for robotics companies to show off their goods in the lead up to and the event itself. We’re looking for the best and brightest in the robotics world — both startups and established companies alike. If you’ve got a technology you think will wow us, we want to hear from you.

Specifically, we’re looking for technology that will make for great videos and stage demos. We’re also searching for startups who are interested in participating in a pitch competition. Bonus points for new technologies we haven’t seen before — and for companies based in and around the Bay Area. Think you’ve got what it takes? Fill out the form below. We’ll reach out to those companies that meet the criteria.

More information on the upcoming TC Sessions: Robotics event can be found here.



Categories: Business News

The red-hot AI hardware space gets even hotter with $56M for a startup called SambaNova Systems

Startup News - 2018, March 16 - 12:00am

Another massive financing round for an AI chip company is coming in today, this time for SambaNova Systems — a startup founded by a pair of Stanford professors and a longtime chip company executive — to build out the next generation of hardware to supercharge AI-centric operations.

SambaNova joins an already quite large class of startups looking to attack the problem of making AI operations much more efficient and faster by rethinking the actual substrate where the computations happen. The GPU has become increasingly popular among developers for its ability to handle the kinds of lightweight mathematics in very speedy fashion necessary for AI operations. Startups like SambaNova look to create a new platform from scratch, all the way down to the hardware, that is optimized exactly for those operations. The hope is that by doing that, it will be able to outclass a GPU in terms of speed, power usage, and even potentially the actual size of the chip. SambaNova today said it has raised a massive $56 million series A financing round was co-led by GV and Walden International, with participation from Redline Capital and Atlantic Bridge Ventures.

SambaNova is the product of technology from Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, two professors at Stanford, and led by former Oracle SVP of development Rodrigo Liang, who was also a VP at Sun for almost 8 years. When looking at the landscape, the team at SambaNova looked to work their way backwards, first identifying what operations need to happen more efficiently and then figuring out what kind of hardware needs to be in place in order to make that happen. That boils down to a lot of calculations stemming from a field of mathematics called linear algebra done very, very quickly, but it’s something that existing CPUs aren’t exactly tuned to do. And a common criticism from most of the founders in this space is that Nvidia GPUs, while much more powerful than CPUs when it comes to these operations, are still ripe for disruption.

“You’ve got these huge [computational] demands, but you have the slowing down of Moore’s law,” Olukotun said. “The question is, how do you meet these demands while Moore’s law slows. Fundamentally you have to develop computing that’s more efficient. If you look at the current approaches to improve these applications based on multiple big cores or many small, or even FPGA or GPU, we fundamentally don’t think you can get to the efficiencies you need. You need an approach that’s different in the algorithms you use and the underlying hardware that’s also required. You need a combination of the two in order to achieve the performance and flexibility levels you need in order to move forward.”

While a $56 million funding round for a series A might sound massive, it’s becoming a pretty standard number for startups looking to attack this space, which has an opportunity to beat massive chipmakers and create a new generation of hardware that will be omnipresent among any device that is built around artificial intelligence — whether that’s a chip sitting on an autonomous vehicle doing rapid image processing to potentially even a server within a healthcare organization training models for complex medical problems. Graphcore, another chip startup, got $50 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, while Cerebras Systems also received significant funding from Benchmark Capital.

Olukotun and Liang wouldn’t go into the specifics of the architecture, but they are looking to redo the operational hardware to optimize for the AI-centric frameworks that have become increasingly popular in fields like image and speech recognition. At its core, that involves a lot of rethinking of how interaction with memory occurs and what happens with heat dissipation for the hardware, among other complex problems. Apple, Google with its TPU, and reportedly Amazon have taken an intense interest in this space to design their own hardware that’s optimized for products like Siri or Alexa, which makes sense because dropping that latency to as close to zero as possible with as much accuracy as possible in the end improves the user experience. A great user experience leads to more lock-in for those platforms, and while the larger players may end up making their own hardware, GV’s Dave Munichiello — who is joining the company’s board — says this is basically a validation that everyone else is going to need the technology soon enough.

“Large companies see a need for specialized hardware and infrastructure,” he said. “AI and large-scale data analytics are so essential to providing services the largest companies provide that they’re willing to invest in their own infrastructure, and that tells us more investment is coming. What Amazon and Google and Microsoft and Apple are doing today will be what the rest of the Fortune 100 are investing in in 5 years. I think it just creates a really interesting market and an opportunity to sell a unique product. It just means the market is really large, if you believe in your company’s technical differentiation, you welcome competition.”

There is certainly going to be a lot of competition in this area, and not just from those startups. While SambaNova wants to create a true platform, there are a lot of different interpretations of where it should go — such as whether it should be two separate pieces of hardware that handle either inference or machine training. Intel, too, is betting on an array of products, as well as a technology called Field Programmable Gate Arrays (or FPGA), which would allow for a more modular approach in building hardware specified for AI and are designed to be flexible and change over time. Both Munichiello’s and Olukotun’s arguments are that these require developers who have a special expertise of FPGA, which is a sort of niche-within-a-niche that most organizations will probably not have readily available.

Nvidia has been a massive benefactor in the explosion of AI systems, but it clearly exposed a ton of interest in investing in a new breed of silicon. There’s certainly an argument for developer lock-in on Nvidia’s platforms like Cuda. But there are a lot of new frameworks, like TensorFlow, that are creating a layer of abstraction that are increasingly popular with developers. That, too represents an opportunity for both SambaNova and other startups, who can just work to plug into those popular frameworks, Olukotun said. Cerebras Systems CEO Andrew Feldman actually also addressed some of this on stage at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference last month.

“Nvidia has spent a long time building an ecosystem around their GPUs, and for the most part, with the combination of TensorFlow, Google has killed most of its value,” Feldman said at the conference. “What TensorFlow does is, it says to researchers and AI professionals, you don’t have to get into the guts of the hardware. You can write at the upper layers and you can write in Python, you can use scripts, you don’t have to worry about what’s happening underneath. Then you can compile it very simply and directly to a CPU, TPU, GPU, to many different hardwares, including ours. If in order to do that work, you have to be the type of engineer that can do hand-tuned assembly or can live deep in the guts of hardware, there will be no adoption… We’ll just take in their TensorFlow, we don’t have to worry about anything else.”

(As an aside, I was once told that Cuda and those other lower-level platforms are really used by AI wonks like Yann LeCun building weird AI stuff in the corners of the Internet.)

There are, also, two big question marks for SambaNova: first, it’s very new, having started in just November while many of these efforts for both startups and larger companies have been years in the making. Munichiello’s answer to this is that the development for those technologies did, indeed, begin a while ago — and that’s not a terrible thing as SambaNova just gets started in the current generation of AI needs. And the second, among some in the valley, is that most of the industry just might not need hardware that’s does these operations in a blazing fast manner. The latter, you might argue, could just be alleviated by the fact that so many of these companies are getting so much funding, with some already reaching close to billion-dollar valuations.

But, in the end, you can now add SambaNova to the list of AI startups that have raised enormous rounds of funding — one that stretches out to include a myriad of companies around the world like Graphcore and Cerebras Systems, as well as a lot of reported activity out of China with companies like Cambricon Technology and Horizon Robotics. This effort does, indeed, require significant investment not only because it’s hardware at its base, but it has to actually convince customers to deploy that hardware and start tapping the platforms it creates, which supporting existing frameworks hopefully alleviates.

“The challenge you see is that the industry, over the last ten years, has underinvested in semiconductor design,” Liang said. “If you look at the innovations at the startup level all the way through big companies, we really haven’t pushed the envelope on semiconductor design. It was very expensive and the returns were not quite as good. Here we are, suddenly you have a need for semiconductor design, and to do low-power design requires a different skillset. If you look at this transition to intelligent software, it’s one of the biggest transitions we’ve seen in this industry in a long time. You’re not accelerating old software, you want to create that platform that’s flexible enough [to optimize these operations] — and you want to think about all the pieces. It’s not just about machine learning.”

Categories: Business News

Drover picks up £5.5M funding for its car subscription marketplace

Startup News - 2018, March 15 - 11:06pm

Drover, a London-based startup that lets you take out a “car subscription” as an alternative to car ownership, has picked up £5.5 million in seed funding. The round was led by VC firms Cherry Ventures, Partech and BP Ventures (the venture arm of BP), and adds to an earlier £2 million ‘pre-seed’ investment from Version One, and Forward Partners.

Founded by Felix Leuschner (CEO) and Matt Varughese (CTO) in late 2015 and subsequently launched the following January, Drover has built what it describes as a Mobility-as-a-Service platform, giving you access to a car wrapped up in a single monthly subscription. This includes the vehicle itself, insurance, road tax, maintenance and breakdown cover. In addition, users can swap, upgrade or downgrade their car monthly or just cancel altogether, without any long-term commitment or steep upfront payments, says the startup.

Of course, you might think that sounds just like existing car rental offerings, except Drover is designed to be a rolling monthly contract, or for 6 months or longer. In other words, mid to long term rentals, which it sees as a gap in the market and competing more against an outright car purchase or taking credit via a longterm car lease or hire-purchase.

More broadly, Drover says it is hoping to tap into macro trends of the sharing economy, which affords an asset-light and on-demand lifestyle (yes, really!). In terms of how this breaks down into actual customers, Drover’s CEO cites young families who value flexibility as their circumstances change, “life-style driven premium customers” who may want a convertible in the summer and an SUV in the winter, and “convenience-oriented customers” who are drawn to Drover’s all-inclusive and hassle-free package compared to the broken and fragmented user experience of traditional car ownership.

The startup has elected to operate a marketplace model, too, meaning that it doesn’t own any cars or have to shoulder the capital cost of inventory. Instead it currently works with 100 fleet partners to provide a selection of new and used vehicles on its platform. Fleet partners are large rental companies like Europcar, Avis Budget Group and Hertz, car dealership groups, and OEMs, which includes a partnership with BMW Group UK. The buy-in from fleet partners is a new way to monetize vehicles that would otherwise be sitting around idle while depreciating.

“Drover’s marketplace model thereby allows its vehicle partners (rental car companies, dealership groups, OEMs) to list, manage and monetise available vehicle inventory, driving incremental revenue from otherwise under-utilised assets,” Drover’s Leuschner tells me.

Meanwhile, Dover says the new funding will be used to scale the business further and invest in its engineering and product team.

“We at Cherry have the thesis that car ownership is going to change fundamentally in the next few years,” Cherry Ventures founding partner Christian Meermann tells me. “Why should consumers actually own a car or lease it for a long period of 3 or 4 years in the times of sharing economy, desire for high flexibility, and fast innovation cycles in the automotive industry? We believe that Drover’s car subscription service will change the whole automotive industry with Drover’s extremely high flexibility, combined with its broad selection of available cars”.

Meermann says he hopes the Drover team will rapidly grow car subscription in the U.K. and beyond. The key to this, he says, is building great tech to power the supply side of the startup’s marketplace (ie making it cost-effective and scalable for fleet partners to onboard and manage inventory), while at the same time “creating tremendous value” for customers on the demand side.

Categories: Business News


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