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Paperless Post introduces Flyer for more casual invitations

2018, June 20 - 1:00am

Paperless Post, the design-first invitations service, has today announced the launch of a new product called Flyer.

Flyer is meant to be a more lightweight invitation, for events like a BBQ or a casual birthday as opposed to a formal event.

The idea started when Paperless Post founder and CEO James Hirschfeld realized there were certain events in his life where he still wasn’t using Paperless Post, despite the fact that he founded the company.

“Even though Paperless is my baby and I love it, there were still moments in the year or in life or as a business or as a consumer where it doesn’t make sense to send something formal,” said Hirschfeld. “You don’t want to pay or you don’t want to labor over an invite.”

That’s where Flyer comes in.

Flyer is designed around Vibes, which are curated sets of images, GIFs, colors, layouts and text animations that aim to capture the vibe of your shindig. These pieces can be mixed and matched to convey exactly what the user is intending and no more.

Flyer was also built mobile first. Remember, Paperless Post launched in a desktop world back in 2009, and has worked to make the more formal Cards product a mobile friendly experience. With Flyer, the company started with mobile given the lightweight nature of the product itself.

One other key feature of Flyer is that it’s not necessarily an email product. While Paperless Post Cards require an email address to send and receive, Flyer simply opts for a web address, letting users send via text, post on social media, send via email, or send through another messaging client.

Flyer launches with six different vibes, and will be offered as a free product. That said, Hirschfeld sees the opportunity to layer in premium features and Vibes to the Flyer product in the future.

Paperless Post has raised just under $50 million with lead investors including RRE and August Capital.

Categories: Business News

Redpoint looks to fresh faces to pilot its latest $400M fund

2018, June 20 - 12:30am

When Redpoint’s partners handed hims CEO Andrew Dudum the term sheet for the company’s early financing round, one of the most surprising part of that whole process was that the investment partners had actually figured out the font that the company used — and printed out the term sheet with that font.

“I have no idea how they even found it,” Dudum said. “I’ve obviously known these guys a long time. There’s this foundation of trust there, they were able to motivate the entire Redpoint partnership in 18 hours from a meeting at 6 p.m. at night on, like, a Thursday. We got a call that night an hour later saying, ‘are you free at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning,’ and the entire partnership showed up at our office, and they did what I’ve never seen done before which was present the term sheet right there on the spot that was printed on the Hims branded peach color with the Hims branded font.”

That’s because Redpoint today, Dudum says, is staffed up with operators that just better understand those ins-and-outs because they have the actual experience. The firm brought in former Uber Freight operator and former CRV partner Annie Kadavy in April. Alex Bard joined last year after running email marketing startup Campaign Monitor and previously serving as an EVP and GM at Salesforce. It’s that fresh blood and team of partners that come from a history of running strategic elements of companies that will be responsible for Redpoint’s seventh fund, a new $400 million fund the firm has wrapped up as it looks to continue hunting down early-stage investments like the ones it has in Hims, Looker, Zuora and others. Redpoint says this is all part of a generational hand-off — a process each firm has to go through at some point — and hand off the fund to a new set of faces.

In the past decade, venture firms have found themselves looking for new younger partners — especially more diverse ones (the percentage of women partners hovers at around 8%) — as a way to not only widen the scope of the areas they understand, but also just have a more diverse set of partners that founders can relate to. That’s especially true as consumer trends rapidly shift and become considerably more arcane, especially with partners that have a lot of experience working with the Twitters and Facebooks of the world but might have missed out on next-generation consumer applications like Snap. But it’s also true for even enterprise products as consumer behavior and usage rapidly shifts over time.

“There’s speed, there’s conviction, and there’s relationships,” Redpoint partner Satish Dharmaraj said. “You want the younger partners who can feel the market and build relationships before the deal is done and be able to relate to those founders. That’s what younger partners bring — building those relationships early, hustling before everyone else. For Redpoint [fund] 7, none of the founders are involved in the fund, but they’re always there to support us and give us advice and help us think through issues.”

The whole process of running Redpoint, too, sometimes feels like a quasi-operating role, Brandless CEO Tina Sharkey said. Redpoint now has monthly all-hands stand-ups, a common feature of many startups to discuss what’s happening and where the business is going. Redpoint partners will often hop in and out of roles that a company might need at a time before they’re able to hire the right spot. Redpoint’s partners are expected to be ready to step in with their own experience where necessary, or help connect them with the right people who have that experience, or help hunt down the talent that they need.

“It’s just a very different sort of environment [today] when talking to other founders and operators,” Bard said. “A big part of the attraction was they’d been there and done that, versus just having academic experience. There’s more capital than there’s ever been, but founders are looking for people who can build businesses who have been there and done that.”

That doesn’t just end with talking about the ins and outs of a company. Investors, who are talking a little more publicly about it these days, also seek to serve as sounding boards for founders when crap hits the fan. Kadavy, Bard, and others have to serve as a kind of voice of reason when they get a call late on a Saturday night from a founder freaking out after some huge deal fell through or a business came to a complete halt, and talk them through that whole process based on their experiences — just be there to listen. At a time when mental health becomes a critical focus in the tech world, that’s essentially turned into a part of the job for any venture partner. Dharmaraj said the job is to stress to founders that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and to not quickly get burnt out.

“I have a text me any time, call me any time policy,” Kadavy said. “It is wildly tumultuous and can be very quickly becoming very lonely. I know having been one myself, and having lots my friends who are founders. You’re completely captured by your company and employees, or product market fit, or investors, and your aperture isn’t necessarily wide enough to have an idea of what you’re doing. The problems are almost always solvable problems, which therein makes people feel better. We might not know the answer, but you have an inkling that you can do something. I like to go on walks with founders that are outside of South Park (where Redpoint is located), to get out and see what else is out there.”

For Dudum and Sharkey, the backstory is pretty similar — they both got to know Redpoint partners very early on before they ended up as investors in Hims and Brandless. Sharkey met Redpoint partner Jeff Brody through the process of becoming a board member at HomeAway, while Dudum met Tomasz Tunguz at around age 20 because he liked his writing. They both got to know both founders over the course of many years and kept in constant communication with the firm. Dudum said when Redpoint turned down an investment in one of his companies, partner Ryan Sarver personally went to his office, printed out a memo with all the reasons they didn’t invest, and walked through every point with him. Bard, one of Redpoint’s new partners, handled Redpoint’s later investment in Hims.

“It comes back to a hunger and willingness to roll up their sleeves and move fast and help,” Dudum said. “This is kind of something I’ve thought about a lot in the last few years. Often, help as a VC isn’t super glamorous. It’s not some crazy strategic introduction, or one of those once-a-year type things. It’s actually doing things like energizing the founder when it’s been a tough week. Or it’s getting into the dirty of helping source candidates for a specific role that we’re really trying to fill. It’s things like these that are actually really tedious [but the most important]. These guys that I worked with are willing to do that and make an extra effort to do that.”

In the end, that generational transition will still probably be a tough one. Redpoint has to differentiate itself as a firm that can provide something that gives startups an edge over just going to another firm, especially as the size of funds — and valuations in even early financing rounds — explode. More and more money is flowing into fewer and fewer deals, and founders have gotten considerably more savvy in figuring out where to look for those investments. Kadavy, Bard, and the rest of the team are tasked with sourcing those best deals and ensuring that they can at least get the attention of founders early on even if they aren’t going to invest in them right away. But getting there in the middle of that transition is one of the things that got Kadavy excited to join Redpoint in the first place.

“I think most venture firms are talking about being in a generational transition and in our different stages, they’re actually taking action or just talking about it,” Kadavy said. “Generational transitions take at least two funds, so that’s conservatively six years or longer. It’s easy for people to talk about it for a long time but not actually happen. When I was at CRV, a fund that’s been around for 45 years, I learned a lot about how generation transitions can go quite well. They’ve been successful over many decades. I honestly believe having talked to many other firms and many friends, Redpoint is at the most unique point in time based on where they truly are in their generational transition.”

Categories: Business News

IRL wants to get people together offline

2018, June 19 - 11:00pm

Social planning apps are a dime a dozen, but none have risen to become a mainstay in our digital lives. IRL, founded by Abe Shafi and Scott Banister, is looking to break the pattern, focusing on positivity to get people excited about hanging out offline.

When users first sign up, they’re asked a series of multiple choice questions about their friends: “Who is the best at building pillow forts?” or “Who has the best style?” with four of your contacts as possible answers. These ‘nominations’ are meant to catalyze making plans with those friends. Those nominations stay anonymous.

From there, users can choose from a wide variety of interests like “Netflix and Chill,” “Grab Burgers,” or “Watch the World Cup.” Once they’ve chosen an interest, they can mark the time (today, soon, or pick a date) and send an invite to friends, at which point the group comes up with the right time and place for the plans.

According to cofounder and CEO Abe Shafi, the structure of IRL is meant to take the pressure off of any one person from being the ‘host.’

“We designed IRL so that people could send out lightweight invitations,” said Shafi. “We want people to be able to say ‘hey, I want to do something’ and send it out to a larger group of friends, letting people opt in and decide what they want to do. Creating a safe container that lets people opt in helps with social anxiety around making plans.”

This isn’t Shafi’s first go-round in the world of tech startups. Shafi sold his startup GetTalent to Dice in 2013. Shafi said that one of the difficulties in enterprise software was that he felt less and less connected to the problems he was solving, and knew that he felt at his best spending time with friends and family.

“I knew I didn’t want to participate in the distraction economy,” said Shafi. “More and more articles came out saying the healthiest thing you can do is spend time with people. I thought more about creating an app to help people get together, which in many ways is the white whale of consumer web.”

That’s how the idea for IRL started. But it wasn’t always called IRL. In fact, Shafi first launched an app called Gather, which we wrote about in early 2017.

Gather did an incredibly poor job of notifying users when it was sending out texts to their friends and contacts to join the app. While social apps have a limited window to get people on the app with their friends, Gather’s approach was reckless and ended up backfiring.

“That was our biggest mistake,” said Shafi. “We had a lot of really bad UX and UI that didn’t make it clear at all when you were inviting someone to Gather whether they were on or off the app, and it made people really confused.”

Shafi says that he and the team have learned a lot from Gather, and have implemented much more clear notifications around when a button in the app might send a text to someone who isn’t already on the IRL app. For example, during onboarding when the app asks you to send out nominations, it’ll show a couple of people already on the app and a couple of people from your contacts that haven’t downloaded the app. Those who aren’t on IRL will have an asterisk next to their name with a note on the page saying that those with an asterisk will be sent a text.

Some people still don’t do a great job of reading the fine print, so there are still some users in the app’s review section expressing their displeasure. But IRL has done a much better job of clarifying any step or action that might initiate a text send to a contact off the app.

Today, IRL launches its Android app, which you can find in the Google Play store.

IRL has received an undisclosed amount of funding from Floodgate and Founders Fund, and Cyan Banister (Scott Banister’s partner) led the Founders Fund round.

Categories: Business News raises $11M and launches its hosted IoT data platform.

2018, June 19 - 9:00pm, the winner of our Disrupt Europe 2014 Startup Battlefield competition, today announced that it has raised an $11 million Series A round. In addition, the company also launched its ‘Crate Machine Learning Platform’ today, a new hosted solution for businesses that want to use the company’s SQL-based database platform for working with IoT data.

The new funding round was led by Zetta Venture Partners and Deutsche Invest Equity, with participation from Chalfen Ventures, Momenta Partners and Charlie Songhurst. Existing investors, including Draper Espirit, Vito Ventures and Docker founder Solomon Hykes also participated.

Crate co-founder and CEO Christian Lutz told me that over the course of the last year or so, the company has seen a large increase in paying customers, which now tally up to about 30. That has also allowed Crate to grow its revenue beyond $1 million in annual run rate. He attributed the current success of the startup to its renewed focus on machine data, something the team wasn’t really focused on when it first launched its product.

It was also this focus that made fundraising easier, Lutz told me. “What made the difference no is that very strong focus on machine data — in combinate with delivering sales,” he said. The fact that Crate now also has a number of well-known reference customers, including the likes of Skyhigh Networks and ALPLA, a packaging manufacturer that you have probably never heard of but that produces virtually all the bottles for Coca-Cola and Unilever for the U.S. market (as well as a bunch of other bottles that you probably have at home).

Unsurprisingly, the company, which now has over 30 employees, plans to use the new funding to expand its marketing and sales efforts, as well as to expand its core engineering team.

Talking about engineering. With its Machine Platform, Crate also today launched its first hosted offering, which lives on Microsoft’s Azure platform. That’s not a major surprise for two reasons: a) many of Crate’s industrial customers are already betting on Azure anyway and, b) Crate was part of the 2017 class of the Microsoft Growth Accelerator in Berlin. The focus of the new platform is to provide businesses with a single solution for ingesting large amounts of data from IoT devices. The platform supports real-time analytics and allows users to set up their own rules to trigger workflows and alerts as necessary. The platform itself handles all of the scaling (which is handled by the popular Kubernetes container orchestration tool), as well as backup, archiving and the usual role-based security functions.

Crate also today launched version 3.0 of its open source offering. While the company’s commercial focus is obviously on the value-added features for enterprises, it continues to actively develop the open source version, too and Lutz noted that this new version offers a 100x performance increase for some types of queries.

Categories: Business News

Brex picks up $57M to build an easy credit card for startups

2018, June 19 - 7:00pm

While Henrique Dubugras and Pedro Franceschi were giving up on their augmented reality startup inside Y Combinator and figuring out what to do next, they saw their batch mates struggling to get even the most basic corporate credit cards — and in a lot of cases, having to guarantee those cards themselves.

Brex, their new startup,  aims to try to fix that by offering startups a way to quickly get what’s effectively a credit card that they can use without having to personally guarantee that card or wade through complex processes to finally get a charge card. It’s geared initially towards smaller companies, but Dubugras expects those startups to grow up with it over time — and that Brex is already picking up larger clients. The company, coming out of stealth, said it has raised a total of $57 million from investors including the Y Combinator Continuity fund, Peter Thiel, Max Levchin, Yuri Milner, financial services VC Ribbit Capital and former Visa CEO Carl Pascarella. Y Combinator Continuity fund partner Anu Hariharan and Ribbit Capital managing partner Meyer Malka are joining the company’s board of directors.

“We want to be the best corporate credit card for startups,” Dubugras said. “We’re don’t require a personal guarantee or deposit, and we can give people a credit limit that’s as much as ten times higher. We can get you a virtual credit card in literally 5 minutes, versus traditional banks, in which you’d have to personally guarantee the card and get a low limit and it takes weeks to approve.”

Startup executives go to Brex’s website, sign up, and then put in their bank account info. They then use that banking information to underwrite the card, with the idea being that the service can see that the start has raised millions of dollars and doesn’t have the kind of wild liability that those banks think they might have given how young they are. Once the application is done, companies get a virtual credit card, and they can start divvying up virtual cards with custom limits for their employees. The company says it has attracted more than 1,000 customers and is now opening up globally.

The cards are designed to have better spending limits, and also offer company executives more granular ways to assign those limits to employees. The cards have to be paid off by the end of the month, and the rolling balance for those cards is dependent on the amount of capital each startup has available. The total limit available is, instead, a percentage of the company’s cash balance available. So rather than having to go through the process of getting approved for a card, the service can look at how much money is in a startup’s bank account and adjust the spending limit for all those cards accordingly.

Another aspect is automating the whole expense and auditing process. Rather than just going through typical applications like Concur and inputting specifics, card users can send a text message of a receipt through Brex associated with each transaction. Users will just get a text message about a charge — like a cup of coffee for a meeting with a potential business partner — and reply to that text with a message of the receipt to log the whole process. Everything is geared toward simplifying the whole process for startups that have an opportunity to be a bit more nimble and aren’t bogged down with complex layers of enterprise software. Each expense is looped in with a vendor, so executives can see the total amount of spending that’s happening at that scale.

The ability to have those dynamic spending limits is just one example of what Dubugras hopes will make Brex competitive. Rather than slotting into existing systems, Brex has an opportunity to recreate the back-end processes that power those cards, which larger institutions might not be able to do as they’ve hit a massive scale and get less and less agile. Dubugras and Franceschi previously worked on and sold, a Brazilian payments processor, where they saw firsthand the complex nature of working with global financial institutions — and some of the holes they could exploit.

“It’s not like we’re two geniuses that came up with a lot of things that no one came up with,” Dubugras said. “Implementing them with third-party processors is hard, but we didn’t have any of [those integrations], so we can rebuild them from scratch. It’s hard for banks to throw money at a problem and build those tools. We’ve rebuilt the way that these things work internally — they’d have to change fundamentally how the system works.”

While there are plenty of startups looking to quickly offer virtual cards, like Revolut’s disposable virtual card service, Brex aims to be what’s effectively a corporate card — just one that’s easier to get and works basically the same as a normal card. Users still have to pay off the balance at the end of the month, but the idea there is that Brex can de-risk itself by doing that while still offering startups a way to get a card with a high limit to start paying for the services or tools they need to get started.

Categories: Business News

Penta, the bank account for SMEs, adds multi-card support to manage expenses

2018, June 19 - 5:00pm

Penta, the German fintech startup that offers a digital bank account targeting SMEs, has launched multi-card support to make it easier to manage company expenses.

Dubbed ‘Team Access,’ the new feature — which affords similar functionality to the likes of Pleo, Spendesk, and Soldo — lets business owners issue multiple MasterCards to employees who need to make purchases on a company’s behalf.

Each card is linked to a business’ Penta account but can have custom rules and permissions per card/employee, in terms of how much money can be spent and where. More broadly, the feature is designed to cut down the time and cost of expense management for SMEs.

“As business owners know, it can take weeks of daunting paperwork to get another debit card from a legacy bank. The alternative solution for a business owner is to apply for a business credit card which has a predefined credit limit. Most early stage businesses aren’t credit-worthy, and therefore can’t get a second card,” explains the company.

To help with expense management, Penta already lets you categorise transactions and export them to various accounting software. On the public roadmap is “automated accounting,” which will offer the ability to sync your account to third-party accounting tools.

Meanwhile, Team Access is being rolled out in two stages. As of today, users will be able to issue team debit MasterCards and give account access to founders/Managing Directors. In the “coming weeks,” the option to issue Penta cards and give account access to all employees will be added.

The two-stage roll out is likely related to Penta’s recent scaling issues that saw it initially struggle to open new accounts in a timely manner due to high demand. The fintech startup runs on top of Banking-as-a-Platform solarisBank (rather than holding a banking license of its own), and I understand the bottleneck, which has now been cleared, was related to solarisBank’s account verification processes.

Categories: Business News

Talentry scores €6M for its ‘social recruitment and marketing’ platform

2018, June 19 - 5:00pm

Talentry, a startup based in Munich that has developed a “social recruitment and marketing platform,” has closed €6 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Nauta Capital, the pan-European VC focused on SaaS, with participation from Rocket Internet’s GFC, Allgeier SE, and number of angel investors. I also understand that GFC previously backed Talentry’s €2 million seed round.

Relatively low-key to date, Talentry offers a SaaS to enable companies to utilise their employees’ social networks to help with recruitment. The platform powers employee referral and employee advocacy programs, including the ability for employees to easily share job openings and corporate content. The premise is that, although social recruitment is as old as recruitment itself, simply having employees post job openings on various social channels alone, is no longer going to cut it.

Instead, explained Talentry CEO Carl Hoffmann on a call last week, social recruitment combined with content marketing works much more effectively. For example, employees could share a company blog post about an upcoming product, which would also include relevant job postings. The landing pages generated by Talentry are personalised, too, so that the employee who shared the content is clearly signposted and the recruitment-related content can be further adapted for their audience accordingly.

More broadly, Hoffmann says that fierce competition for talent is changing the way companies recruit. This is seeing a marketing strategy comparable to winning customers. “To do this successfully — attracting candidates, building talent pools and nurturing them long-term — companies need the right technology,” he explains.

Talentry says it serves over 150 clients across all industries, including Henkel, Swiss Post, Vodafone, Axel Springer, and Universal Music Group. Meanwhile, the new funding will be used to develop further product features, such as a more powerful CRM for tracking recruitment leads, and to grow the team. Hoffmann says the company also plans to launch in international markets, including the U.K. and U.S., adding to the German-speaking countries it currently targets.

Guillem Sagué, who led the investment at Nauta Capital, says: “At Nauta we invest in capital-efficient global disruptors in the software space, and we believe Talentry has the potential to create a new software category focused on building and nurturing relationships with talented potential candidates at scale. As this is the first investment we made in Germany from our current €155 million fund this investment is the first building block of our German operations”.

Categories: Business News

ezCater raises $100M as it looks to own office catered meals around the world

2018, June 19 - 1:01pm

Everyone at the office needs lunch (or in some cases dinner) — but for salespeople trying to entice a potential lead or convince an architect to pick up their project, they might need to use a free meal as a bit of a lure to get them in the room to make that pitch.

It was a problem that Stefania Mallett, CEO of ezCater, and co-founder Briscoe Rodgers ran into plenty of times — and decided to turn it into a full company. ezCater gives all those sales people, or financial advisors, or anything along those lines a way to quickly set up a catered meal and have an expectation that it’ll work without any kinds of bottlenecks all across the country. The company said it has raised a new round of funding led by Wellington Management Company, with existing investors ICONIQ capital and Insight Venture Partners also participating among others. This round brings ezCater’s total funding to around $170 million, at a valuation of $700 million, according to a source familiar with the matter.

“It’s a high stakes event, you’re ordering food for a sales call, you only get an hour with that customer,” Mallett said. ” When you’re ordering food for a company meeting, you have 1.5 hours. You have to make this work on time and make sure if there are any problems that you can jump in with really high class customer service. More than half of our staff are in customer service and we have a tremendous amount of automation that makes the customer service be effective for us. But without that, you’re not gonna get very far.”

Like the rest of the companies trying to woo offices looking for catered meals, ezCater looks to collect as much data as it can. That could be an analog situation, like one in its own office where employees tried to find the best setup to remove as many bottlenecks as possible for lunch on a Thursday — even timing the process with stopwatches. As more information comes in, like reviews or critiques of the whole process, ezCater can turn around and use that to adapt to any changing environments or office cultures and figure out how to provide the best experience.

Mallett says the company has more than 60,000 restaurants signed up to the service, and the hope with this new round of funding is to continue to expand that — especially as the company eyes growth abroad. While they’re able to sign on plenty of chains, ezCater also has to hit the ground to find high quality local restaurants and make sure they do a quality check on them before they end up on the catering platform. That certainly requires a lot of manpower, and Mallett said more than half of the company is centered around customer service. That, too, is still a pretty analog process even as the company looks to put out more of its tools and automate all these processes.

“We need to reach out to [independent restaurants] one at a time, and our marketing department has done a good job of turning the phones around,” Mallett said. “We still don’t accept many of the inbounds, we’re looking for people whom we believe can deliver quality. We curate for reliability, not for a price point or a type of food. Another thing we have to offer them is a catering management suite that allows them to handle all the orders we send them, as well as other orders they might get through other channels.”

Still, there’s plenty of activity when it comes to catering. Startups like ZeroCater are raising money to expand beyond just daily lunch orders and own other parts of the office dining experience, like providing snacks. Delivery apps like DoorDash too might see the opportunity for catering as a significant business model. But Mallett’s argument is that those organizations are either still pretty local, or they won’t have the kind of restaurant overlap that ezCater has as they look to capture business from larger clients that need to put together a quick meal for the office. ezCater, too, offers options for daily lunches or other meals with a white glove service.

“We can’t expand into the consumer business very fast, and they can’t expand into catering very fast,” Mallett said. “Restaurants have an internal flow that makes sense for being a restaurant, and in many restaurants if you fill in with a catering order for 25 people, the kitchen wants to kill you. They don’t even have space in the storage room for the big trays. If you take all the restaurants that DoorDash or GrubHub or any of the guys who are doing the individual orders, and you take all our restaurants, and you map them on top of each other, there will be a small amount of overlap.”

Categories: Business News

Veriff raises $7.7M Series A to become the ‘Stripe for identity’

2018, June 19 - 1:00pm

Veriff, the Estonian startup that wants to become something akin to the ‘Stripe for identity’, has raised $7.7 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Mosaic Ventures, joining an impressive list of backers that include Taavet Hinrikus, Ashton Kutcher, Paul Buchheit, Elad Gil, SV Angel, ACE Ventures, and Superangel. Mosaic’s Simon Levene, and Hinrikus, who co-founded and is chairman of TransferWise, have joined the Veriff board.

Founded by 23 year old Kaarel Kotkas — who is now on his third startup and has garnered quite a bit of publicity in his home country — Veriff has developed a SaaS and underlying technology to make it easy for companies, such as banks and fintechs, to easily verify a person’s identity online. In fact, Kotkas previously spent some time at TransferWise, where he solidified the idea, before founding the startup and going through Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator as part of its W18 batch.

Offered as a developer-friendly API — hence the Stripe comparison — Veriff says its solution can be implemented “in minutes”. It costs €49 per month, plus €2 per verification.

The aim, says Kotkas, is to make premium identity verification available to smaller companies and not just large corporations that can easily absorb high integration costs of incumbent offerings. However, what really sets Veriff apart from a number of competitors is its use of live video to verify you are who you say you are.

“Veriff has created an online identity verification service that is more secure than physical face to face verification and now we’re making it available to everyone,” he tells me. “We’re the first ones that understood that pictures never do them justice. It’s all about building up trust online and our service uses a unique video based approach to make sure the verification is done in real-time and voluntarily by the right person”.

Off the record, Kotkas divulged some of Veriff’s “secret sauce,” which — understandably — he wants to keep secret. The startup uses hundreds of data points collected through analysing the live video feed, including frame by frame, and from a user’s device and network. It then uses machine learning to sift through this data and, individually and in aggregate, spot patterns and anomalies that might otherwise be missed by a human.

“We know that pictures never do the justice so instead of analysing only pictures we record everything as a video and analyse frames from the video. Our fraud prevention has been built up combining device information, user behaviour, document validation & face comparison,” he says.

As a result of its video-based approach, Kotkas claims that Veriff has the highest conversion rate on the market, without compromising security. “We’ve created an online verification flow that is all about building up trust, so honest users can go through the flow conveniently, but fraudsters will drop”.

To that end, Kotkas says Veriff remains at least two steps ahead of fraudsters. Then, after an uncomfortably long pause and following prodding from me, he attempts to explain how the startup comes up with new techniques and tests them in the wild, again without disclosing too much information. “It’s a good question but a hard one to answer!” he says knowingly.

Meanwhile, Veriff says it has over 40 paying customers globally. They include financial enterprises, marketplaces, sharing economy companies and e-commerce sites. The company has its development and customer service team based in Tallinn, Estonia, and will soon move sales and marketing operations to the U.S.

Categories: Business News

Bet money on yourself with Proveit, the 1-vs-1 trivia app

2018, June 19 - 6:13am

Pick a category, wager a few dollars and double your money in 60 seconds if you’re smarter and faster than your opponent. Proveit offers a fresh take on trivia and game show apps by letting you win or lose cash on quick 10-question, multiple choice quizzes. Sick of waiting to battle a million people on HQ for a chance at a fraction of the jackpot? Play one-on-one anytime you want or enter into scheduled tournaments with $1,000 or more in prize money, while Proveit takes around 10 percent to 15 percent of the stakes.

“I’d play Jeopardy all the time with my family and wondered ‘why can’t I do this for money?’ ” says co-founder Prem Thomas.

Remarkably, it’s all legal. The Proveit team spent two years getting approved as “skill-based gaming” that exempts it from some laws that have hindered fantasy sports betting apps. And for those at risk of addiction, Proveit offers players and their loved ones a way to cut them off.

The scrappy Florida-based startup has raised $2.3 million so far. With fun games and a snackable format, Proveit lets you enjoy the thrill of betting at a moment’s notice. That could make it a favorite amongst players and investors in a world of mobile games without consequences.

“I could spend $50 for a three-hour experience in a movie theater, or I could spend $2 to enter a Proveit Movies tournament that gives me the opportunity to compete for several thousand dollars in prize money,” says co-founder Nathan Lehoux. “That could pay for a lot of movies tickets!”

Proving it as outsiders

St. Petersburg, Fla. isn’t exactly known as an innovation hub. But outside Tampa Bay, far from the distractions, copycatting and astronomical rent of Silicon Valley, the founders of Proveit built something different. “What if people could play trivia for money just like fantasy sports?” Thomas asked his friend Lehoux.

That’s the same pitch that got me interested when Lehoux tracked me down at TechCrunch’s SXSW party earlier this year. Lehoux is a jolly, outgoing fella who became interested in startups while managing some angel investments for a family office. Thomas had worked in banking and health before starting a yoga-inspired sandals brand. Neither had computer science backgrounds, and they’d raised just a $300,000 seed round from childhood friend Hilt Tatum who’d co-founded beleaguered real money gambling site Absolute Poker.

Yet when he Lehoux thrust the Proveit app into my hand, even on a clogged mobile network at SXSW, it ran smoothly and I immediately felt the adrenaline rush of matching wits for money. They’d initially outsourced development to an NYC firm that burned much of their initial $300,000 seed funding without delivering. Luckily, the Ukrainian they’d hired to help review that shop’s code helped them spin up a whole team there that built an impressive v1 of Proveit.

Meanwhile, the founders worked with a gaming lawyer to secure approvals in 33 states including California, New York, and Texas. “This is a highly regulated and highly controversial space due to all the negative press that fantasy sports drummed up,” says Lehoux. “We talked to 100 banks and processors before finding one who’d work with us.”

Proveit founders (from left): Nathan Lehoux, Prem Thomas

Proveit was finally legal for the three-fourths of the U.S. population, and had a regulatory moat to deter competitors. To raise launch capital, the duo tapped their Florida connections to find John Morgan, a high-profile lawyer and medical marijuana advocate, who footed a $2 million angel round. A team of grad students in Tampa Bay was assembled to concoct the trivia questions, while a third-party AI company assists with weeding out fraud.

Proveit launched early this year, but beyond a SXSW promotion, it has stayed under the radar as it tinkers with tournaments and retention tactics. The app has now reached 80,000 registered users, 6,000 multi-deposit hardcore loyalists and has paid out $750,000 total. But watching HQ trivia climb to more than 1 million players per game has proven a bigger market for Proveit.

Quiz for cash

“We’re actually fans of HQ. We play. We think they’ve revolutionized the game show,” Lehoux tells me. “What we want to do is provide something very different. With HQ, you can’t pick your category. You can’t pick the time you want to play. We want to offer a much more customized experience.”

To play Proveit, you download its iOS-only app and fund your account with a buy-in of $20 to $100, earning more bonus cash with bigger packages (no minors allowed). Then you play a practice round to get the hang of it — something HQ sorely lacks. Once you’re ready, you pick from a list of game categories, each with a fixed wager of about $1 to $5 to play (choose your own bet is in the works). You can test your knowledge of superheroes, the ’90s, quotes, current events, rock ‘n roll, Seinfeld, tech and a rotating selection of other topics.

In each Proveit game you get 10 questions, 1 at a time, with up to 15 seconds to answer each. Most games are head-to-head, with options to be matched with a stranger, or a friend via phone contacts. You score more for quick answers, discouraging cheating via Google, and get penalized for errors. At the end, your score is tallied up and compared to your opponent, with the winner keeping both player’s wagers minus Proveit’s cut. In a minute or so, you could lose $3 or win $5.28. Afterwards you can demand a rematch, go double-or-nothing, head back to the category list or cash out if you have more than $20.

The speed element creates intense, white-knuckled urgency. You can get every question right and still lose if your opponent is faster. So instead of second-guessing until locking in your choice just before the buzzer like on HQ, where one error knocks you out, you race to convert your instincts into answers on Proveit. The near instant gratification of a win or humiliation of a defeat nudge you to play again rather than having to wait for tomorrow’s game.

Proveit will have to compete with free apps like Trivia Crack, prize games like student loan repayer Givling and virtual currency-based Fleetwit, and the juggernaut HQ.

“The large tournaments are the big draw,” Lehoux believes. Instead of playing one-on-one, you can register and ante up for a scheduled tournament where you compete in a single round against hundreds of players for a grand prize. Right now, the players with the top 20 percent of scores win at least their entry fee back or more, with a few geniuses collecting the cash of the rest of the losers.

Just like how DraftKings and FanDuel built their user base with big jackpot tournaments, Proveit hopes to do the same… then get people playing little one-on-one games in-between as they wait for their coffee or commute home from work.

Gaming or gambling?

Thankfully, Proveit understands just how addictive it can be. The startup offers a “self-exclusion” option. “If you feel that you need to take greater control of your life as it relates to skill-gaming,” users can email it to say they shouldn’t play any more, and it will freeze or close their account. Family members and others can also request you be frozen if you share a bank account, they’re your dependant, they’re obligated for your debts or you owe unpaid child support.

“We want Proveit to be a fun, intelligent entertainment option for our players. It’s impossible for us to know who might have an issue with real-money gaming,” Lehoux tells me. “Every responsible real-money game provides this type of option for its users.

That isn’t necessarily enough to thwart addiction, because dopamine can turn people into dopes. Just because the outcome is determined by your answers rather than someone else’s touchdown pass doesn’t change that.

Skill-based betting from home could be much more ripe for abuse than having to drag yourself to a casino, while giving people an excuse that they’re not gambling on chance. Zynga’s titles like Farmville have been turning people into micro-transaction zombies for a decade, and you can’t even win money from them. Simultaneously, sharks could study up on a category and let Proveit’s random matching deliver them willing rookies to strip cash from all day. “This is actually one of the few forms of entertainment that rewards players financially for using their brain,” Lehoux defends.

With so much content to consume and consequence-free games to play, there’s an edgy appeal to the danger of Proveit and apps like it. Its moral stance hinges on how much autonomy you think adults should be afforded. From Coca-Cola to Harley-Davidson to Caesar’s Palace, society has allowed businesses to profit off questionably safe products that some enjoy.

For better and worse, Proveit is one of the most exciting mobile games I’ve ever played.

Categories: Business News

SpeakSee makes it simple for a deaf person to join a group conversation

2018, June 19 - 5:31am

There’s a great deal of activity in the fields of speech recognition and the “Internet of Things,” but one natural application of the two has gone relatively unpursued: helping the deaf and hard of hearing take part in everyday conversations. SpeakSee aims to do this (after crowdfunding, naturally) with a clever hardware design that minimizes setup friction and lets everyone communicate naturally.

It’s meant to be used in situations where someone hard of hearing needs to talk with a handful of others — a meeting, a chat at dinner, asking directions and so on. There are speech-to-text apps out there that can transcribe what someone is saying, but they’re not really suited to the purpose.

“Many deaf people experienced a huge barrier in asking people to download the app and hold the phone close to their mouth. These limitations in the interface meant no one kept using it,” explained SpeakSee CEO and co-founder Jari Hazelebach. “But because we designed our own hardware, we were able to customize it towards the situations it will be used in.”

SpeakSee is simple to use: A set of clip-on microphones live in a little charger case, and when the user wants to have a conversation, they hand those microphones out to whoever will be talking. The case acts as a wireless hub for the mics and relays the audio to the smartphone with which it’s paired. This audio is sent off, transcribed quickly somewhere in the cloud, and displayed on the deaf user’s phone.

Critically, though, each microphone also intelligently and locally accounts for its speaker and background noise.

“Naturally the microphones pick up speech from multiple people,” said Hazelebach. “So we included sensors that tell the microphone what direction the sound is coming from, and the microphones exchange these values. So we can determine which microphone should pick up which person’s speech.”

The result is quickly transcribed speech divided by speaker, delivered quickly and with decent accuracy (there’s always a trade-off between turnaround time and how the process is). And no one has to do anything but wear a mic. (They have a patent pending for this multi-microphone system.)

Hazelebach’s parents are deaf, and he grew up seeing how their ability to interact in ordinary circumstances was being limited.

The mics aren’t exactly small… but that’s how you know they’re real working hardware and not imaginary.

“As you can imagine my parents were the first to test this out,” he said. “At first we had a lot of issues but soon we started engaging with others. We wrote a post on a deaf blog and out of nowhere 200 people signed up. So we’ve been testing in the field with groups in the U.S., and also in the U.K. and the Netherlands.”

Right now English speech recognition is considerably ahead of Dutch and other languages, so the transcriptions will be better for the former, but even so the devices should work with any of 120 languages supported by the cloud service. Transcription is free for up to 5 hours of audio monthly, after which it’s a $10/month subscription. But if it works, it may be more than worth the money.

The team has a finished prototype but is seeking crowdfunding to get production off the ground. “We need to improve the electronics to meet specifications, battery life for example. We expect to ship in February of 2019,” Hazelebach said. Pre-orders are set at $350 for a dock and three mics.

The usual caveats (primarily “emptor”) apply when backing an Indiegogo type campaign — but at the very least, having spoken to the creator, I feel pretty sure this is a real, working product that just needs a boost to get to market.

Categories: Business News

Microsoft acquires social learning platform Flipgrid

2018, June 18 - 10:00pm

Microsoft has acquired Flipgrid, a social education app that utilizes short video clips to create collaborative lesson plans. The Minneapolis-based startup, which began life as Vidku, has had strong growth for an experience that has been alternatively described as Instagram and Snapchat for the classroom. Early last year, it reported an 800 percent year-over-year growth in teacher accounts.

It’s certainly a play that makes sense in Microsoft’s portfolio, as the company looks to take back the education market currently being dominated by Google, thanks to its wildly popular Chromebook category. In May of last year, the company launched an educational variant of Windows 10, which joined such existing plays as its Minecraft Education Edition.

“We’re thrilled to see the impact Flipgrid has had in social learning thus far and look forward to helping them continue to thrive as part of the Microsoft family,” Microsoft VP Eran Megiddo, said in a release tied to the announcement. “We’re diligently committed to making sure their platform and products continue to work across the Microsoft, Google and partner ecosystems to benefit students and teachers everywhere.” 

How, precisely, Flipgrid will fit into Microsoft’s overall edtech play remains to be seen, though the company has already integrated the app into Microsoft Teams in Office 365 for Education. As with its Office 365 Education offering, the company will be making the app free for schools. Those who already purchased an account, meanwhile, will be getting a refund.

A round of updates to the app is forthcoming, as well. Microsoft will be unveiling those at Flipgrid’s education conference in early April. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Categories: Business News

Pulumi wants to let you manage your infrastructure with code

2018, June 18 - 9:00pm

Pulumi, a Seattle-based startup that’s coming out of stealth mode today, wants to make it easier for developers and ops team to define their infrastructure by writing code. Instead of using a cloud-specific configuration language, the service’s tools allow developers to define the infrastructure for their applications in the same programming languages they already use for the applications.

The service has the backing of Madrona Venture Group and Tola Capital, with Madrona’s S. Somasegar joining its board of directors.

What’s interesting here is that it doesn’t matter whether that infrastructure is containers, virtual machines or a serverless function, or whether those will run in a private cloud or one of the major public clouds. Supported languages currently include JavaScript, TypeScript, Python and Go, with support for .NET and Java, C# following soon.

Pulumi CEO Joe Duffy has extensive open-source experience (he built the team at Microsoft that took .NET open source), so it’s no surprise that Pulumi, too, has a number of open-source components. What the service offers in addition to that, though, is a hosted service for managing Pulumi stacks after they have been deployed, as well as tools for collaboration and integrating the service into existing workflows.

As Duffy and his co-founder and executive chairman Eric Rudder argued when I met with the team ahead of today’s announcement, today’s vendor-specific templating languages only lead to “configuration sprawl” and result in templates that mix code and configuration into an unholy mix of unreadable files that nobody wants to touch. This approach, Rudder and Duffy argued, also leads to a wider gap between developers and the operations teams that try to support them. The team told me that it managed to reduce more than 1,000 lines of Helm code into fewer than 200 lines of Pulumi code, for example — and much of those 200 lines is reusable.

“There is a massive movement to the cloud among enterprise customers around the world,” said Somasegar. “As that trend continues to gather and gain momentum, new and transformative techniques are required as customers truly begin to take advantage of cloud-native capabilities. This transformation grows leaps and bounds with serverless computing starting to emerge as the next frontier to enable truly distributed applications and services that are powered by microservices and event-driven functions.” And in his view, Pulumi’s code-first approach will help push this movement forward.

Pulumi is now available as a preview — and all of its pricing plans are currently available for free.

Categories: Business News

Plum, the fintech chatbot that helps you save, adds theme-based investing

2018, June 18 - 8:25pm

Plum, the fintech startup co-founded by early TransferWise employee Victor Trokoudes, is continuing its mission to help you manage your finances and save money. The AI-powered Messenger chatbot already offers savings functionality, including round-ups and regular savings, and today is launching an investment tool that lets you choose fund investments based on themes, such as ethical companies or technology.

Similar to competitors Cleo and Chip, Plum connects to your bank accounts and its algorithm then analyses your spending patterns to work out how much you can afford to set aside. It is able to identify things like income and bills, and can take a number of actions on your behalf.

This includes ‘micro-savings’ — rounding up any purchases you make — and other forms of regular saving, in which money is moved from your bank account to a segregated Plum savings account. From there you’re able to optionally put money into RateSetter, the peer-to-peer lending platform, if you wish to earn interest.

However, savings is only one pillar of Plum’s three pillar strategy. The other two are investments and spotting when you are paying too much for things like credit or utilities. Investing is getting an official launch today (having been announced in wait-list form a few months ago), and Trokoudes tells me energy switching, in partnership with green energy company Octopus, has been live for a while. If Plum detects that a user could reduce their home energy bill, it sends them a message offering to initiate the switch on their behalf.

Along with letting you invest at three different risk levels, Plum’s new investment tool provides theme-based investing. At launch these are ‘Tech’, ‘Emerging Markets’, and ‘Ethical Companies’. Other themes the platform will add in the coming months include ‘AI’, ‘Nutrition’, and ‘Robotics’. You can invest from as little as £1.

Notably, Plum is charging a monthly fee of £1 for accessing the feature, along with 0.15 percent annually on the amount you have invested. If you choose the themed fund option there is an additional fund fee. However, Trokoudes says investing via Plum is still one of the cheapest options on the market, where higher percentage annual management fees soon add up.

Plum is also disclosing its latest user numbers. In the last year, the chatbot has grown from 22,000 users to 130,000. That’s arguably decent growth for what was quite a limited product feature-wise, so it will be interesting to see the take up for Plum’s new investment tool and what effect that has on overall user numbers. As a comparison, competitor Cleo — which offers a raft of functionality but not yet investing — hit 200,000 users in April and said at the time it was growing by 3,000 users per day.

Meanwhile, Plum isn’t the only savings or PFM-type app that lets you invest based on themes. Oval Money (see our previous coverage) has quietly launched an investment marketplace, starting with three funds.

The “Women at the Table” fund will allow investors to support companies that ensure that at least 20 percent of board members are women. A “Belong but Work Remote” fund promotes the growing “flexible jobs economy”. Lastly, “Generation Millennials” will track leading consumer brands that are particularly popular with millennials.

The move is said to reflect research Oval Money has conducted into the “increasing appetite younger savers have to invest in causes they believe in, rather than basing decisions only on traditional risk-return factors”.

Categories: Business News

Zenaton lets you build and run workflows with ease

2018, June 18 - 7:02pm

French startup Zenaton raised $2.35 million from Accel and Point Nine Capital, with the Slack Fund, Kima Ventures, Julien Lemoine and Francis Nappez also participating. The company wants to take care of the most tedious part of your application — asynchronous jobs and background tasks.

While it has never been easier to develop a simple web-based service with a database, building and scaling workflows that handle tasks based on different events still sucks.

Sometimes your background task fails and it’s going to take you days before you notice that your workflow stopped working. Some workflows might require so much resources that you’ll end up paying a huge server bill to get more RAM to handle those daily cron jobs and performance spikes.

And yet, many small companies would greatly benefit from adding asynchronous jobs. For instance, you could improve your retention rate by sending email reminders. You could try to upsell your customers with accessories if you’re running an e-commerce website. You could ask for reviews a few hours after a user found a restaurant through your app.

“We work hard to make it super easy – as a developer, you just have to install the Zenaton agent on your worker servers. That’s all. Specifically, you’ll no longer have to maintain a queuing system for your background jobs, there’s no more cron, no more database migrations to store transient states,” co-founder and CEO Gilles Barbier told me. Barbier previously worked at The Family and Zenaton is part of The Family’s portfolio.

Zenaton is already working with a big client and handles millions of workflow instances for them. You can try Zenaton for free if you execute less than 250,000 tasks per month. After that, plans start at $49 per month and you’ll pay more depending on how much RAM you consume with your workflows.

For now, you can integrate Zenaton with a PHP and a Node application, but the company is working on more languages, starting with Python, Ruby and Java. It’s clear that the product is still young.

But it sounds like a promising start. If you have a small development team, it could make sense to use Zenaton and a workflow-as-a-service approach.

Categories: Business News

Email security startup Tessian raises $13M led by Balderton and Accel

2018, June 18 - 4:30pm

Tessian (formerly called CheckRecipient), the London-based startup that is deploying machine learning to improve email security, has raised $13 million in Series A funding. Leading the round is Balderton Capital, and existing backer Accel. A number of previous investors also followed on, including Amadeus Capital Partners, Crane, LocalGlobe, Winton Ventures, and Walking Ventures.

Founded in 2013 by three engineering graduates from Imperial College — Tim Sadler, Tom Adams and Ed Bishop — Tessian is built on the premise that humans are the weak link in company email and data security. This can either be through mistakes, such as a wrongly intended recipient, or through nefarious employee activity. By applying “machine intelligence” to monitoring company email, the startup has developed various tools to help prevent this.

Once installed on a company’s email systems, Tessian’s machine learning tech analyses an enterprise’s email networks to understand normal and abnormal email sending patterns and behaviours. It then attempts to detect anomalies in outgoing emails and warns users about potential mistakes before an email is sent. This, the startup says, makes it different to legacy rule-based technologies and that Tessian requires “no admin from security teams and no end-user behaviour change”.

One neat aspect is that Tessian can get to work retroactively, producing historical reports that show how many misaddressed emails an organisation has sent prior to the installation date. That is bound to help with sales, even if it could give an enterprise’s security team quite a shock, especially in light of recent GDPR data regulation in Europe. The new EU directive stipulates that companies must report data breaches involving personal information to their local regulator and face fines as high as 4 percent of global turnover for the worst data breaches.

In a call late last week with Tessian CEO and co-founder Tim Sadler, he told me the company plans to use the additional funding for R&D, including the launch of new product, and to expand its sales and marketing teams. Since the startup’s seed round last year, the Tessian team has grown from 13 to 50 people.

Sadler explained that Tessian is looking to apply its tech to in-bound email, in addition to its existing out-bound products. One way to think about it, he says, is that an email address is like an IP address for humans, enabling human to human networks. However, in terms of security, not only are humans an obvious weak point, acting as the gatekeeper to the network and the data that resides on it, email by design is inherently open.

To that end, Sadler tells me that next on Tessian’s roadmap is a way to make in-bound email less prone to data breaches. This will include using Tessian’s machine intelligence to identify spoofed emails or other unusual communication.

“What Tessian have done — and this is why we are so excited about them — is apply machine intelligence to understand how humans communicate with each other and use that deeper understanding to secure enterprise email networks,” says Balderton Capital Partner Suranga Chandratillake. “The genius of this approach is that while the product focus today is on email — by far the most used communication channel in the corporate enterprise — their technology can be applied to all communication channels in time. And, as we all communicate in larger volumes and on more channels, that represents a vast opportunity”.

Meanwhile, Sadler says the startup’s customers span legal, healthcare and financial services, but that any enterprise handling sensitive data are a potential fit. “World leading organisations like Schroders, Man Group and Dentons and over 70 of the UK’s leading law firms are now using platform to protect their email networks,” adds the company.

Categories: Business News

Breaking down France’s new $76M Africa startup fund

2018, June 18 - 2:30pm
Jake Bright Contributor Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa. More posts by this contributor

Weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a $76 million African startup fund at VivaTech 2018, TechCrunch paid a visit to the French Development Agency (AFD) — who will administer the new fund — to get more details on how le noveau fonds will work.

The $76 million (or €65 million) will divvy up into three parts, according to AFD Digital Task Team Leader Christine Ha.

“There are €10 million [$11.7 million] for technical assistance to support the African ecosystem… €5 million will be available as interest-free loans to high-potential, pre-seed startups…and…€50 million [$58 million] will be for equity-based investments in series A to C startups,” explained Ha during a meeting in Paris.

The technical assistance will distribute in the form of grants to accelerators, hubs, incubators and coding programs. The pre-seed startup loans will issue in amounts up to $100,000 “as early, early funding to allow entrepreneurs to prototype, launch and experiment,” said Ha.

The $58 million in VC startup funding will be administered through Proparco, a development finance institution — or DFI — partially owned by the AFD. The money will come “from Proparco’s balance sheet”…and a portion “will be invested in VC funds active on the continent,” said Ha.

Proparco already invests in Africa-focused funds such as TLcom Capital and Partech Ventures. “Proparco will take equity stakes, and will be a limited partner when investing in VC funds,” said Ha.

Startups from all African countries can apply for a piece of the $58 million by contacting any of Proparco’s Africa offices (including in Casablanca, Abidjan, Douala, Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg).

And what will AFD (and Proparco) look for in African startup candidates? “We are targeting young and innovative companies able to solve problems in terms of job creation, access to financial services, energy, health, education and affordable goods and services…[and] able to scale up their venture on the continent,” said Ha.

The $11.7 million technical assistance and $5.8 million loan portions of France’s new fund will be available starting in 2019. On implementation, AFD is still “reviewing several options…such as relying on local actors through [France’s] Digital Africa platform,” said Ha.

Digital Africa ­— a broader French government initiative to support the African tech ecosystem — will launch a new online platform in November 2018 with resources for startup entrepreneurs.

So that’s the skinny on France’s new Africa fund. It adds to a load of VC announced for the continent in less than 15 months, including $70 for Partech Ventures, TPG Growth’s $2 billion Rise Fund and $40 million at TLcom Capital.

Though $75 million (and these other amounts) may pale compared to Silicon Valley VC values, it’s a lot for a startup scene that — at rough estimate — attracted only $400 million four years ago.  African tech entrepreneurs, you now have a lot more global funding options, including from France.

Categories: Business News

VCs serve up a large helping of cash to startups disrupting food

2018, June 17 - 3:11am
Joanna Glasner Contributor More posts by this contributor

Here is what your daily menu might look like if recently funded startups have their way.

You’ll start the day with a nice, lightly caffeinated cup of cheese tea. Chase away your hangover with a cold bottle of liver-boosting supplement. Then slice up a few strawberries, fresh-picked from the corner shipping container.

Lunch is full of options. Perhaps a tuna sandwich made with a plant-based, tuna-free fish. Or, if you’re feeling more carnivorous, grab a grilled chicken breast fresh from the lab that cultured its cells, while crunching on a side of mushroom chips. And for extra protein, how about a brownie?

Dinner might be a pizza so good you send your compliments to the chef — only to discover the chef is a robot. For dessert, have some gummy bears. They’re high in fiber with almost no sugar.

Sound terrifying? Tasty? Intriguing? If you checked tasty and intriguing, then here is some good news: The concoctions highlighted above are all products available (or under development) at food and beverage startups that have raised venture and seed funding this past year.

These aren’t small servings of capital, either. A Crunchbase News analysis of venture funding for the food and beverage category found that startups in the space gobbled up more than $3 billion globally in disclosed investment over the past 12 months. That includes a broad mix of supersize deals, tiny seed rounds and everything in-between.

Spending several hours looking at all these funding rounds leaves one with a distinct sense that eating habits are undergoing a great deal of flux. And while we can’t predict what the menu of the future will really hold, we can highlight some of the trends. For this initial installment in our two-part series, we’ll start with foods. Next week, we’ll zero in on beverages.

Chickenless nuggets and fishless tuna

For protein lovers disenchanted with commercial livestock farming, the future looks good. At least eight startups developing plant-based and alternative proteins closed rounds in the past year, focused on everything from lab meat to fishless fish to fast-food nuggets.

New investments add momentum to what was already a pretty hot space. To date, more than $600 million in known funding has gone to what we’ve dubbed the “alt-meat” sector, according to Crunchbase data. Actual investment levels may be quite a bit higher since strategic investors don’t always reveal round size.

In recent months, we’ve seen particularly strong interest in the lab-grown meat space. At least three startups in this area — Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Wild Type — raised multi-million dollar rounds this year. That could be a signal that investors have grown comfortable with the concept, and now it’s more a matter of who will be early to market with a tasty and affordable finished product.

Makers of meatless versions of common meat dishes are also attracting capital. Two of the top funding recipients in our data set include Seattle Food Tech, which is working to cost-effectively mass-produce meatless chicken nuggets, and Good Catch, which wants to hook consumers on fishless seafoods. While we haven’t sampled their wares, it does seem like they have chosen some suitable dishes to riff on. After all, in terms of taste, both chicken nuggets and tuna salad are somewhat removed from their original animal protein sources, making it seemingly easier to sneak in a veggie substitute.

Robot chefs

Another trend we saw catching on with investors is robot chefs. Modern cooking is already a gadget-driven process, so it’s not surprising investors see this as an area ripe for broad adoption.

Pizza, the perennial takeout favorite, seems to be a popular area for future takeover by robots, with at least two companies securing rounds in recent months. Silicon Valley-based Zume, which raised $48 million last year, uses robots for tasks like spreading sauce and moving pies in and out of the oven. France’s EKIM, meanwhile, recently opened what it describes as a fully autonomous restaurant staffed by pizza robots cooking as customers watch.

Salad, pizza’s healthier companion side dish, is also getting roboticized. Just this week, Chowbotics, a developer of robots for food service whose lineup includes Sally the salad robot, announced an $11 million Series A round.

Those aren’t the only players. We’ve put together a more complete list of recently launched or funded robot food startups here.

Beyond sugar

Sugar substitutes aren’t exactly a new area of innovation. Diet Rite, often credited as the original diet soda, hit the market in 1958. Since then, we’ve had 60 years of mass-marketing for low-calorie sweeteners, from aspartame to stevia.

It’s not over. In recent quarters, we’ve seen a raft of funding rounds for startups developing new ways to reduce or eliminate sugar in many of the foods we’ve come to love. On the dessert and candy front, Siren Snacks and SmartSweets are looking to turn favorite indulgences like brownies and gummy bears into healthy snack options.

The quest for good-for-you sugar also continues. The latest funding recipient in this space appears to be Bonumuse, which is working to commercialize two rare sugars, Tagatose and Allulose, as lower-calorie and potentially healthier substitutes for table sugar. We’ve compiled a list of more sugar-reduction-related startups here.

Where is it all headed?

It’s tough to tell which early-stage food startups will take off and which will wind up in the scrap bin. But looking in aggregate at what they’re cooking up, it looks like the meal of the future will be high in protein, low in sugar and prepared by a robot.

Categories: Business News

Lemonade files lawsuit against wefox for IP infringement

2018, June 16 - 1:57am

Lemonade, the insurance platform based out of NYC, has filed a lawsuit against German company ONE Insurance, its parent company wefox, and founder Julian Teicke.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court Southern District of NY, alleges that wefox reverse engineered Lemonade to create ONE, infringing Lemonade’s intellectual property, violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and breaching its contractual obligations to Lemonade not to “copy content… to provide any service that is competitive…or to…create derivative works.”

In the filing (which you can see on Pacer or here), Lemonade alleges that Teicke repeatedly registered for insurance on Lemonade under various names and for various addresses, some of which do not exist. Teicke also allegedly filed claims in what appeared to be an attempt to assess and copy the arrangement of those flows.

Lemonade’s counsel says Teicke started seven claims over the course of 20 days, prompting Lemonade to cancel his policy.

Alongside Teicke, a number of other executives and members of leadership at wefox also filed fake claims, says the complaint, despite having opted in to Lemonade’s user agreement and taking an honesty pledge, which is required of all Lemonade users.

This, according to Lemonade, violates the Computer Fraud and Abuse act. Lemonade also alleges that the ONE app infringes Lemonade’s IP, and that in assessing the Lemonade app and building a competitor, Teicke also violated Lemonade’s TOS.

Lemonade has changed the insurance business in two key ways: First, it made the process of actually buying insurance as easy as a few clicks on your smartphone. Digitizing the process makes the issue of getting home or renters insurance far less daunting and more approachable to consumers. Secondly, Lemonade rethought the business model of insurance.

Normally, insurance providers charge you a certain monthly rate based on the value of the property/items looking to be insured. But at the end of the year, the money remaining in that policy becomes profit, putting the insurance company in direct opposition to the consumer any time a claim is filed.

Lemonade takes its profit directly out of each payment, and if a file isn’t claimed, it sends the rest of the leftover money to the charity of your choice, ensuring that Lemonade and the consumer are on the same page when a claim is filed.

In keeping with that thesis, any proceeds generated from this lawsuit will go directly to

“We’re not trying to enrich ourselves by poking another startup,” said Lemonade CEO Daniel Schreiber . “We’re not anti-competition. We’re just saying ‘Play by the rules, play fair and square.'”

Update: A wefox spokesperson offered up the following statement:

At wefox Group, we have 160 talented people whose hard work has created a unique business that is challenging the status quo every day. These allegations have no merit and ultimately appear to be an attempt to disrupt our business rather than a serious dispute. Lemonade actually raised these questions with us nine months ago, and – as we explained at the time – the concerns are meritless and we further received no answer. We have not been served any paper from Lemonade: if we are, we intend to defend ourselves vigorously. This lawsuit appears to be an attempt to bait the media into covering a non-issue.

Categories: Business News

YC alum Modern Health, a startup focused on emotional wellbeing, gets $2.26M seed funding

2018, June 15 - 11:00pm

Modern Health founders Alyson Friedensohn and Erica Johnson

About one year ago, a note from a CEO thanking his employee for using sick days to take care of her mental health went viral. It was a reminder to Alyson Friedensohn of what she wants to accomplish with Modern Health, the emotional health benefits startup she founded last year with neuroscientist Erica Johnson.

“We want that to be normal. We want the email she sent to be normal, to be able to be that open,” Friedensohn tells TechCrunch.

Modern Health, a Y Combinator alum, announced today that it has raised $2.26 million in seed funding for hiring, accelerating the development of its healthcare platform and growing its network of therapists, coaches and other providers. Offered as a benefit by companies, Modern Health’s services are meant to improve employee well-being and retention rates. The round was led by Afore, with participation from Social Capital, Precursor Ventures, Merus Capital, Maschmeyer Group Ventures, Y Combinator and angel investors.

Friedensohn, Modern Health’s chief executive officer, says several employers have already signed up for its platform, which includes services like counseling and career and financial coaching. One of its newest customers, human resources startup Gusto, hit a 43% utilization rate of its services, including connecting employees to coaches and therapists, among registered users just four days after it began offering the platform. 

The startup is especially proud of the fact that Modern Health’s team is currently all female and Friedensohn wants to parlay their points of view into services that address issues affecting women. For example, the platform already works with providers who specialize in postpartum depression and infertility.

“People don’t talk about what working moms are dealing with and countless things like that,” says Friedensohn, who previously worked at health tech companies Keas and Collective Health. “People don’t want to talk about it because they are worried it will jeopardize their careers, but it makes a difference.”

Several other tech startups are working on mental health care platforms for employers to offer as a benefit, including, Lyra Health and Quartet, which have all have received significant amounts of funding from prominent investors. The space is especially important, given the alarming rise in the United States’ suicide rate and the fact that about 6.7% of all adults in the U.S. have experienced at least one major depressive episode.

One of Modern Health’s priorities is to reach employees before they hit a crisis point. Since many people are daunted by the idea of therapy, the platform connects them to coaches instead to focus on specific issues, like their careers, or overall emotional wellbeing. This helps referrals, Friedensohn notes, because it makes the service feel more approachable.

“They can say to friends, I have this awesome Modern Health coach, versus saying I have a therapist, so it’s way easier for people to engage,” she says.

Modern Health also makes its services more accessible by offering several ways to use the platform: texting, video calls or, for people who don’t want to talk to a therapist or coach yet, meditation apps and other digital tools created by the company. Friedensohn adds that it’s not uncommon for people to write essays on their sign-up forms when registering because it’s the first time they’ve been able to unload their problems.

“People like that it’s coaching,” she says. “What we found is that by focusing on that point, the biggest thing is lowering the barrier to entry, so that people who are depressed are also comfortable reaching out.”

Categories: Business News