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Updated: 5 hours 49 min ago

From lab-grown meat to fermented fungus, here’s what corporate food VCs are serving up

19 hours 32 min ago
Joanna Glasner Contributor More posts by this contributor

In a foodie’s ideal world, we’d all eat healthy, minimally processed cuisine sourced from artisanal farmers, bakers and chefs.

In the real world, however, most of us derive the lion’s share of calories from edibles supplied by a handful of giant food conglomerates. As such, the ingredients and processing techniques they favor have an outsized impact on our daily diets.

With this in mind, Crunchbase News decided to take a look at corporate food VCs and the startups they are backing to see what their dealmaking might say about our snacking future. We put together a list of venture funds operated by some of the larger food and beverage producers, covering literally everything from soup to nuts (plus lunch meat and soda, too!).

Like their corporate backers, startups funded by “Big Food” are a diverse bunch. Recent funding recipients are pursuing endeavors ranging from alternative protein to biospectral imaging to fermented fungus. But if one were to pinpoint an overarching trend, it might be a shift away from cost savings to consumer-friendliness.

“You think of food-tech and ag-tech 1.0, these were technologies that were primarily beneficial to the producers,” said Rob LeClerc, founding partner at AgFunder, an agrifood investor network. “This new generation of companies are really more focused on what does the consumer want.”

And what does the consumer want? This particular consumer would currently like a zero calorie hot fudge sundae. More broadly, however, the general trends LeClerc sees call for food that is healthier, tastier, nutrient-dense, satiating, ethically sourced and less environmentally impactful.

Below, we look at some of the trends in more detail, including funded companies, active investors and the up-and-coming edibles.

The new, new protein

Mass-market foods may get better but also weirder. This is particularly true for one of the more consistently hot areas of food-tech investment: alternative protein.

Demand for protein-rich foods, combined with ethical concerns about consuming animal products, has, for a number of years, led investors to startups offering meaty tasting tidbits sourced from the plant world.

But lately, corporate food giants have been looking farther beyond soy and peas. Lab-grown meat, once an oddball endeavor good for headlines about $1,000 meatballs, has been attracting serious cash. Since last year, at least two companies in the space have closed rounds backed by Tyson Ventures, the VC arm of the largest U.S. meat producer. They include pricey meatball maker Memphis Meats (actually based in California), which raised $20 million, and Israel-based Future Meat Technologies, a biotech startup working on animal-free meat, which secured $2 million.

Much of the early enthusiasm for new products stems from disillusionment with the existing ingredients we overeat.

If you cringe at the notion of lab-grown cell meat, then there’s always the option of getting your protein through microbes in volcanic springs. That’s the general aim of Sustainable Bioproducts, a startup that raised $33 million in Series A funding from backers including ADM and Danone Manifesto Ventures. The Chicago company’s technology for making edible protein emerged out of research into extremophile organisms in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs.

Meanwhile, if you hanker for real dairy milk but don’t want to trouble cows, another startup, Perfect Day, is working on a solution. Per the company website: “Instead of having cows do all the work, we use microflora and age-old fermentation techniques to make the very same dairy protein that cows make.” Toward that end, the Berkeley company closed a $35 million Series B in February, with backing from ADM.

Fermentation

Perfect Day isn’t the only fermentation play raising major funding.

Corporate food-tech investors have long been interested in the processing technologies that turn an obscure microbe or under-appreciated crop into a high-demand ingredient. And lately, LeClerc said, they’ve been particularly keen on startups finding new ways to apply the age-old technology known as fermentation.

Most of us know fermentation as the process that turns a yucky mix of grain, yeast and water into the popular beverage known as beer. More broadly, however, fermentation is a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes. That is, take a substance, add something it reacts with and voilà, you have a new substance.

Several of the most heavily funded, buzz-generating companies in the food space are applying fermentation, LeClerc said. Besides Perfect Day, examples he points to include the unicorn Ginkgo BioworksGeltor (another alt-protein startup) and mushroom-focused MycoTechnology.

Colorado-based MycoTechnology has been a particularly attractive investor target of late. The company has raised $83 million from a mix of corporate and traditional VCs, including a $30 million Series C in January that included Tyson and Kellogg’s venture arm, Eighteen94 Capital . Founded six years ago, the company is pursuing a range of applications for its fermented fungi, including flavor enhancers, protein supplements and preservatives.

Supply chain

Besides adding strange new ingredients to our grocery shelves, corporate food-tech investors are also putting money into technologies and platforms aimed at boosting the security and efficiency of existing supply chains.

Just like new foods, much of the food safety tech sounds odd, too. Silicon Valley-based ImpactVision, a seed-funded startup backed by Campbell Soup VC arm Acre Venture Partners, wants to employ hyper-spectral imaging to perceive information about contamination, food quality and ripeness.

Boston-based Spoiler Alert, another Acre portfolio company, develops software and analytics for food companies to manage unsold inventory. And Pensa Systems, which uses AI-powered autonomous drones to track in-store inventory, raised a Series A round this year with backing from the venture arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Is weirder better?

We highlighted a few trends in corporate food-tech investment, but there are others that merit attention, as well. Probiotics plays, including the maker of the GoodBelly drink line, are generating investor interest. New ingredients other than proteins are also attracting capital, such as UCAN, a startup developing energy snacks based on a novel, slow-digesting carbohydrate. And the list goes on.

Much of the early enthusiasm for new products stems from disillusionment with the existing ingredients we overeat. But LeClerc noted that new products aren’t always better in the long run — they just might seem so at first.

“The question in the back of our head is: Are we ever creating margarine 2.0,” he said. “Just because it’s a plant product doesn’t mean it’s actually better for you.”

Categories: Business News

Acquisitions, more than IPOs, will create Africa’s early startup successes

19 hours 54 min ago

Africa has made its global IPO debut. Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia—a $1 billion-valued company—began trading live on the NYSE last week.

The stock offering made Jumia the first upstart operating in Africa to list on a major global exchange.

This raises expectations for unicorns and IPOs to create the continent’s first wave of startup moguls. But unlike other markets, big public listings and nine-figure valuations could remain rare in Africa.

The rise of venture arms and startup acquisitions will factor more prominently than IPOs in creating Africa’s early startup successes.

I’ll break down why. First, a quick briefer.

Primer on African tech

Not everyone may be aware, but yes, Africa has a booming tech scene. When measured by monetary values, it’s minuscule by Shenzen or Silicon Valley standards.

Categories: Business News

Startups Weekly: Zoom CEO says its stock price is ‘too high’

2019, April 20 - 9:00pm

When Zoom hit the public markets Thursday, its IPO pop, a whopping 81 percent, floored everyone, including its own chief executive officer, Eric Yuan.

Yuan became a billionaire this week when his video conferencing business went public. He told Bloomberg that he actually wished his stock hadn’t soared quite so high. I’m guessing his modesty and laser focus attracted Wall Street to his stock; well, that, and the fact that his business is actually profitable. He is, this week proved, not your average tech CEO.

I chatted with him briefly on listing day. Here’s what he had to say.

“I think the future is so bright and the stock price will follow our execution. Our philosophy remains the same even now that we’ve become a public company. The philosophy, first of all, is you have to focus on execution, but how do you do that? For me as a CEO, my number one role is to make sure Zoom customers are happy. Our market is growing and if our customers are happy they are going to pay for our service. I don’t think anything will change after the IPO. We will probably have a much better brand because we are a public company now, it’s a new milestone.”

“The dream is coming true,” he added. 

For the most part, it sounded like Yuan just wants to get back to work.

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IPO corner

You thought I was done with IPO talk? No, definitely not:

  • Pinterest completed its IPO this week too! Here’s the TLDR: Pinterest popped 25 percent on its debut Thursday and is currently trading up 28 percent. Not bad, Pinterest, not bad.
  • Fastly, a startup I’d admittedly never heard of until this week, filed its S-1 and displayed a nice path to profitability. That means the parade of tech IPOs is far from over.
  • Uber… Surprisingly, no Uber IPO news this week. Sit tight, more is surely coming.

$1B for self-driving cars

While I’m on the subject of Uber, the company’s autonomous vehicles unit did, in fact, raise $1 billion, a piece of news that had been previously reported but was confirmed this week. With funding from Toyota, Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund, Uber will spin-out its self-driving car unit, called Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group. The deal values ATG at $7.25 billion.

Robots!

The TechCrunch staff traveled to Berkeley this week for a day-long conference on robotics and artificial intelligence. The highlight? Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert debuted the production version of their buzzworthy electric robot. As we noted last year, the company plans to produce around 100 models of the robot in 2019. Raibert said the company is aiming to start production in July or August. There are robots coming off the assembly line now, but they are betas being used for testing, and the company is still doing redesigns. Pricing details will be announced this summer.

#TCRobotics pic.twitter.com/Vf4kUWH0fR

Lucas Matney (@lucasmtny) April 19, 2019

Digital health investment is down

Despite notable rounds for digital health businesses like Ro, known for its direct-to-consumer erectile dysfunction medications, investment in the digital health space is actually down, reports TechCrunch’s Jonathan Shieber. Venture investors, private equity and corporations funneled $2 billion into digital health startups in the first quarter of 2019, down 19 percent from the nearly $2.5 billion invested a year ago. There were also 38 fewer deals done in the first quarter this year than last year, when investors backed 187 early-stage digital health companies, according to data from Mercom Capital Group.

Startup capital

Byton loses co-founder and former CEO, reported $500M Series C to close this summer
Lyric raises $160M from VCs, Airbnb
Brex, the credit card for startups, raises $100M debt round
Ro, a D2C online pharmacy, reaches $500M valuation
Logistics startup Zencargo gets $20M to take on the business of freight forwarding
Co-Star raises $5M to bring its astrology app to Android
Y Combinator grad Fuzzbuzz lands $2.7M seed round to deliver fuzzing as a service

Extra Crunch

Hundreds of billions of dollars in venture capital went into tech startups last year, topping off huge growth this decade. VCs are reviewing more pitch decks than ever, as more people build companies and try to get a slice of the funding opportunities. So how do you do that in such a competitive landscape? Storytelling. Read contributor’s Russ Heddleston’s latest for Extra Crunch: Data tells us that investors love a good story.

Plus: The different playbook of D2C brands

And finally, for the first of a new series on VC-backed exits aptly called The Exit. TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney spoke to Bessemer Venture Partners’ Adam Fisher about Dynamic Yield’s $300M exit to McDonald’s.

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I chat about rounds for Brex, Ro and Kindbody, plus special guest Danny Crichton joined us to discuss the latest in the chip and sensor world.

Categories: Business News

Fastly, the content delivery network, files for an IPO

2019, April 20 - 7:31am

Fastly, the content delivery network that’s raised $219 million in financing from investors (according to Crunchbase), is ready for its close up in the public markets.

The eight-year-old company is one of several businesses that improve the download time and delivery of different websites to internet browsers and it has just filed for an IPO.

Media companies like The New York Times use Fastly to cache their homepages, media and articles on Fastly’s servers so that when somebody wants to browse the Times online, Fastly’s servers can send it directly to the browser. In some cases, Fastly serves up to 90 percent of browser requests.

E-commerce companies like Stripe and Ticketmaster are also big users of the service. They appreciate Fastly because its network of servers enable faster load times — sometimes as quickly as 20 or 30 milliseconds, according to the company.

The company raised its last round of financing roughly nine months ago, a $40 million investment that Fastly said would be the last before a public offering.

Fastly raises another $40 million before an IPO

True to its word, the company is hoping public markets have the appetite to feast on yet another “unicorn” business.

While Fastly lacks the sizzle of companies like Zoom, Pinterest or Lyft, its technology enables a huge portion of the activities in which consumers engage online, and it could be a bellwether for competitors like Cloudflare, which recently raised $150 million and was also exploring a public listing.

The company’s public filing has a placeholder amount of $100 million, but given the amount of funding the company has received, it’s far more likely to seek closer to $1 billion when it finally prices its shares.

Fastly reported revenue of roughly $145 million in 2018, compared to $105 million in 2017, and its losses declined year on year to $29 million, down from $31 million in the year-ago period. So its losses are shrinking, its revenue is growing (albeit slowly) and its cost of revenues are rising from $46 million to around $65 million over the same period.

That’s not a great number for the company, but it’s offset by the amount of money that the company’s getting from its customers. Fastly breaks out that number in its dollar-based net expansion rate figure, which grew 132 percent in 2018.

It’s an encouraging number, but as the company notes in its prospectus, it’s got an increasing number of challenges from new and legacy vendors in the content delivery network space.

The market for cloud computing platforms, particularly enterprise-grade products, “is highly fragmented, competitive and constantly evolving,” the company said in its prospectus. “With the introduction of new technologies and market entrants, we expect that the competitive environment in which we compete will remain intense going forward. Legacy CDNs, such as Akamai, Limelight, EdgeCast (part of Verizon Digital Media), Level3, and Imperva, and small business-focused CDNs, such as Cloudflare, InStart, StackPath, and Section.io, offer products that compete with ours. We also compete with cloud providers who are starting to offer compute functionality at the edge like Amazon’s CloudFront, AWS Lambda, and Google Cloud Platform.”

Categories: Business News

Verified Expert Brand Designer: Ramotion

2019, April 20 - 1:05am

Ramotion is a remote branding and product design agency that has worked with Bay Area tech startups since 2014. While they typically do branding for funded, fast-growing startups, Ramotion has helped companies ranging from Bitmoji’s early brand identity to Mozilla’s rebrand. We spoke to Ramotion’s CEO Denis Pakhaliuk about their iterative approach, his favorite branding projects and more.  

Ramotion’s branding philosophy:

“We are a big fan of starting small: designing a small package, releasing it and then iterating on top of that. So, founders need to be focused on what’s really necessary right now for their next round of investment or product releases.”

On common founder mistakes:

“I think some founders think they need everything, but they actually need an MVP and product design. The same goes for brand identity. They need to have some key elements like colors, typeface and the logo. There is no need to do everything in the beginning, because the logo and brand identity becomes meaningful after it’s used. It’ll eventually improve.”

“They’re the reason we have such an amazing logo today.” Kevin Sproles, Austin, founder & CEO at Volusion

Below, you’ll find the rest of the founder reviews, the full interview and more details like pricing and fee structures. This profile is part of our ongoing series covering startup brand designers and agencies with whom founders love to work, based on this survey and our own research. The survey is open indefinitely, so please fill it out if you haven’t already.

Interview with Ramotion’s CEO Denis Pakhaliuk

Yvonne Leow: Can you tell me about your journey and how you came to create Ramotion?

Denis Pakhaliuk: Yeah, I started as a CG designer more than 10 years ago. I was doing computer graphics, CG modeling, digitalization of architectural design and automotive design. I was initially very focused on German cars and industrial design. Once iPhone 3G came out, I switched to doing UI design for mobile apps, which was a very hot topic at the time.

From that point I met a guy who just said, “Hey, I’m thinking of building an agency,” and so we decided to do it together. It started with a few people and now we have up to 30. We focus on different products, from small companies to more established brands, like Salesforce, among others. So yeah, it’s been a fun journey.

Yvonne Leow: At what point did Ramotion start working with startups?

Categories: Business News

How do you hire a great growth marketer?

2019, April 20 - 1:05am
Julian Shapiro Contributor Share on Twitter Julian Shapiro is the founder of BellCurve.com, a growth marketing agency that trains you to become a marketing professional. He also writes at Julian.com. More posts by this contributor

Editors Note: This article is part of a series that explores the world of growth marketing for founders. If you’ve worked with an amazing growth marketing agency, nominate them to be featured in our shortlist of top growth marketing agencies in tech.

Startups often set themselves back a year by hiring the wrong growth marketer.

This post shares a framework my marketing agency uses to source and vet high-potential growth candidates.

With it, early-stage startups can identify and attract a great first growth hire.

It’ll also help you avoid unintentionally hiring candidates who lack broad competency. Some marketers master 1-2 channels, but aren’t experts at much else. When hiring your first growth marketer, you should aim for a generalist.

This post covers two key areas:

  1. How I find growth candidates.
  2. How I identify which candidates are legitimately talented.
Great marketers are often founders

One interesting way to find great marketers is to look for great potential founders.

Let me explain. Privately, most great marketers admit that their motive for getting hired was to gain a couple years’ experience they could use to start their own company.

Don’t let that scare you. Leverage it: You can sidestep the competitive landscape for marketing talent by recruiting past founders whose startups have recently failed.

Why do this? Because great founders and great growth marketers are often one and the same. They’re multi-disciplinary executors, they take ownership and they’re passionate about product.

You see, a marketing role with sufficient autonomy mimics the role of a founder: In both, you hustle to acquire users and optimize your product to retain them. You’re working across growth, brand, product and data.

As a result, struggling founders wanting a break from the startup roller coaster often find transitioning to a growth marketing role to be a natural segue.

How do we find these high-potential candidates?

Finding founders

To find past founders, you could theoretically monitor the alumni lists of incubators like Y Combinator and Techstars to see which companies never succeeded. Then you can reach out to their first-time founders.

You can also identify future founders: Browse Product Hunt and Indie Hackers for old projects that showed great marketing skill but didn’t succeed.

There are thousands of promising founders who’ve left a mark on the web. Their failure is not necessarily indicative of incompetence. My agency’s co-founders and directors, including myself, all failed at founding past companies.

How do I attract candidates?

To get potential founders interested in the day-to-day of your marketing role, offer them both breadth and autonomy:

  • Let them be involved in many things.
  • Let them be fully in charge of a few things.

Remember, recreate the experience of being a founder.

Further, vet their enthusiasm for your product, market and its product-channel fit:

  • Product and market: Do their interests line up with how your product impacts its users? For example, do they care more about connecting people through social networks, or about solving productivity problems through SaaS? And which does your product line up with?
  • Product-channel fit: Are they excited to run the acquisition channels that typically succeed in your market?

The latter is a little-understood but critically important requirement: Hire marketers who are interested in the channels your company actually needs.

Let’s illustrate this with a comparison between two hypothetical companies:

  1. A B2B enterprise SaaS app.
  2. An e-commerce company that sells mattresses.

Broadly speaking, the enterprise app will most likely succeed through the following customer acquisition channels: sales, offline networking, Facebook desktop ads and Google Search.

In contrast, the e-commerce company will most likely succeed through Instagram ads, Facebook mobile ads, Pinterest ads and Google Shopping ads.

We can narrow it even further: In practice, most companies only get one or two of their potential channels to work profitably and at scale.

Meaning, most companies have to develop deep expertise in just a couple of channels.

There are enterprise marketers who can run cold outreach campaigns on autopilot. But, many have neither the expertise nor the interest to run, say, Pinterest ads. So if you’ve determined Pinterest is a high-leverage ad channel for your business, you’d be mistaken to assume that an enterprise marketer’s cold outreach skills seamlessly translate to Pinterest ads.

Some channels take a year or longer to master. And mastering one channel doesn’t necessarily make you any better at the next. Pinterest, for example, relies on creative design. Cold email outreach relies on copywriting and account-based marketing.

(How do you identify which ad channels are most likely to work for your company? Read my Extra Crunch article for a breakdown.)

To summarize: To attract the right marketers, identify those who are interested in not only your product but also how your product is sold.

Other approaches

The founder-first approach I’ve shared is just one of many ways my agency recruits great marketers. The point is to remind you that great candidates are sometimes a small career pivot away from being your perfect hire. You don’t have to look in the typical places when your budget is tight and you want to hire someone with high, senior potential.

This is especially relevant for early-stage, bootstrapping startups.

If you have the foresight to recognize these high-potential candidates, you can hopefully hire both better and cheaper. Plus, you empower someone to level up their career.

Speaking of which, here are other ways to hire talent whose potential hasn’t been fully realized:

  • Find deep specialists (e.g. Facebook Ads experts) and offer them an opportunity to learn complementary skills with a more open-ended, strategic role. (You can help train them with my growth guide.)
  • Poach experienced junior marketers from a company in your space by offering senior roles.
  • Hire candidates from top growth marketing schools.
Vetting growth marketers

If you don’t yet have a growth candidate to vet, you can stop reading here. Bookmark this and return when you do!

Now that you have a candidate, how do you assess whether they’re legitimately talented?

At Bell Curve, we ask our most promising leads to incrementally complete three projects:

  • Create Facebook and Instagram ads to send traffic to our site. This showcases their low-level, tactical skills.
  • Walk us through a methodology for optimizing our site’s conversion rate. This showcases their process-driven approach to generating growth ideas. Process is everything.
  • Ideate and prioritize customer acquisition strategies for our company. This showcases their ability to prioritize high-leverage projects and see the big picture.

We allow a week to complete these projects. And we pay them market wage.

Here’s what we’re looking for when we assess their work.

Level 1: Basics

First — putting their work aside — we assess the dynamics of working with them. Are they:

  • Competent: Can they follow instructions and understand nuance?
  • Reliable: Will they hit deadlines without excuses?
  • Communicative: Will they proactively clarify unclear things?
  • Kind: Do they have social skills?

If they follow our instructions and do a decent job, they’re competent. If they hit our deadline, they’re probably reliable. If they ask good questions, they’re communicative.

And if we like talking to them, they’re kind.

Level 2: Capabilities

A level higher, we use these projects to assess their ability to contribute to the company:

  • Do they have a process for generating and prioritizing good ideas? 
    • Did their process result in multiple worthwhile ad and landing page ideas? We’re assessing their process more so than their output. A great process leads to generating quality ideas forever.
    • Resources are always limited. One of the most important jobs of a growth marketer is to ensure growth resources are focused on the right opportunities. I’m looking for a candidate that has a process for identifying, evaluating and prioritizing growth opportunities.
  • Can they execute on those ideas? 
    • Did they create ads and propose A/B tests thoughtfully? Did they identify the most compelling value propositions, write copy enticingly and target audiences that make sense?
    • Have they achieved mastery of 1-2 acquisition channels (ideally, the channels your company is dependent on to scale)? I don’t expect anyone to be an expert in all channels, but deep knowledge of at least a couple of channels is key for an early-stage startup making their first growth hire.

If you don’t have the in-house expertise to assess their growth skills, you can pay an experienced marketer to assess their work. It’ll cost you a couple hundred bucks, and give you peace of mind. Look on Upwork for someone, or ask a marketer at a friend’s company.

Recap
  • If you’re an early-stage company with a tight budget, there are creative ways to source high-potential growth talent.
  • Assess that talent on their product fit and market fit for your company. Do they actually want to work on the channels needed for your business to succeed?
  • Give them a week-long sample project. Assess their ability to generate ideas and prioritize them.
Categories: Business News

ProcessOut improves payment data visualization

2019, April 20 - 12:01am

ProcessOut has grown quite a lot since I first covered the startup. The company now has a ton of small and big clients, from Glovo to Vente-Privée and Dashlane. The company has become an expert on payment providers and payment analytics.

The core of the product remains the same. Clients sign up to get an overview on the performance of their payment systems. After setting up ProcessOut Telescope, you can monitor payments with expensive fees, failed payments and disappointing payment service providers.

And this product is quite successful. Back in October 2018, the company had monitored $7 billion in transactions since its inception — last month, that number grew to $13 billion.

The company is adding new features to make it easier to get insights from your payment data. You can now customize your data visualization dashboards with a custom scripting language called ProcessOut Lang. This way, if you have an internal payment team, they can spot issues more easily.

ProcessOut can also help you when it comes to generating reports. The company can match transactions on your bank account with transactions on different payment providers.

If you’re a smaller company and can’t optimize your payment module yourself, ProcessOut also builds a smart-routing checkout widget. When a customer pays something, the startup automatically matches card information with the best payment service provider for that transaction in particular.

Some providers are quite good at accepting all legit transactions, such as Stripe or Braintree. But they are also more expensive than more traditional payment service providers. ProcessOut can predict if a payment service provider is going to reject this customer before handing the transaction to that partner. It leads to lower fees and a lower rejection rate.

The company recently added support for more payment service providers in Latin America, such as Truevo, AllPago and Mercadopago. And ProcessOut now routes more transactions in one day compared to the entire month of October 2018.

As you can see, the startup is scaling nicely. It will be interesting to keep an eye on it.

Categories: Business News

Uber’s self-driving car unit raises $1B from Toyota, Denso and Vision Fund ahead of spin-out

2019, April 19 - 2:17pm

Uber has confirmed it will spin out its self-driving car business after the unit closed $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund.

The development has been speculated for some time — as far back as October — and it serves to both remove a deeply unprofitable unit from the main Uber business, helping Uber scale back some of its losses, while giving Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (known as Uber ATG) more freedom to focus on the tough challenge of bringing autonomous vehicles to market.

The deal values Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, the companies announced. In terms of the exact mechanics of the investment, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

The deal is expected to close in Q3, and it gives investors a new take on Uber’s imminent IPO, which comes with Uber ATG. The company posted a $1.85 billion loss for 2018, but R&D efforts on “moonshots” like autonomous cars and flying vehicles dragged the numbers down by accounting for more than $450 million in spending. Moving those particularly capital-intensive R&D plays into a new entity will help bring the core Uber numbers down to earth, but clearly there’s still a lot of work to reach break-even or profitability.

Still, those crazy numbers haven’t dampened the mood. Uber is still seen as a once-in-a-generation company, and it is tipped to raise around $10 billion from the IPO, giving it a reported valuation of $90 billion-$100 billion.

Like the spin-out itself, the identity of the investors is not a surprise.

The Vision Fund (and parent SoftBank) have backed Uber since a January 2018 investment deal closed, while Toyota put $500 million into the ride-hailing firm last August. Toyota and Uber are working to bring autonomous Sienna vehicles to Uber’s service by 2021 while, in further proof of their collaborative relationship, SoftBank and Toyota are jointly developing services in their native Japan, which will be powered by self-driving vehicles.

The duo also backed Grab — the Southeast Asian ride-hailing company in which Uber owns around 23 percent — perhaps more aggressively. SoftBank has been an investor since 2014, and last year Toyota invested $1 billion into Grab, which it said was the highest investment it has made in ride hailing.

“Leveraging the strengths of Uber ATG’s autonomous vehicle technology and service network and the Toyota Group’s vehicle control system technology, mass-production capability, and advanced safety support systems, such as Toyota Guardian, will enable us to commercialize safer, lower cost automated ridesharing vehicles and services,” said Shigeki Tomoyama, the executive VP who leads Toyota’s “connected company” division, said in a statement.

Here’s Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s shorter take on Twitter:

Excited to announce Toyota, Denso and the SoftBank Vision Fund are making a $1B investment in @UberATG, as we work together towards the future of mobility. pic.twitter.com/JdqhLkV7uU

— dara khosrowshahi (@dkhos) April 19, 2019

Uber files for IPO

Categories: Business News

Index Ventures, Stripe back bookkeeping service Pilot with $40M

2019, April 19 - 6:18am

Five years after Dropbox acquired their startup Zulip, Waseem Daher, Jeff Arnold and Jessica McKellar have gained traction for their third business together: Pilot.

Pilot helps startups and small businesses manage their back office. Chief executive officer Daher admits it may seem a little boring, but the market opportunity is undeniably huge. To tackle the market, Pilot is today announcing a $40 million Series B led by Index Ventures with participation from Stripe, the online payment processing system.

The round values Pilot, which has raised about $60 million to date, at $355 million.

“It’s a massive industry that has sucked in the past,” Daher told TechCrunch. “People want a really high-quality solution to the bookkeeping problem. The market really wants this to exist and we’ve assembled a world-class team that’s capable of knocking this out of the park.”

San Francisco-based Pilot launched in 2017, more than a decade after the three founders met in MIT’s student computing group. It’s not surprising they’ve garnered attention from venture capitalists, given that their first two companies resulted in notable acquisitions.

Pilot has taken on a massively overlooked but strategic segment — bookkeeping,” Index’s Mark Goldberg told TechCrunch via email. “While dry on the surface, the opportunity is enormous given that an estimated $60 billion is spent on bookkeeping and accounting in the U.S. alone. It’s a service industry that can finally be automated with technology and this is the perfect team to take this on — third-time founders with a perfect combo of financial acumen and engineering.”

The trio of founders’ first project, Linux upgrade software called Ksplice, sold to Oracle in 2011. Their next business, Zulip, exited to Dropbox before it even had the chance to publicly launch.

It was actually upon building Ksplice that Daher and team realized their dire need for tech-enabled bookkeeping solutions.

“We built something internally like this as a byproduct of just running [Ksplice],” Daher explained. “When Oracle was acquiring our company, we met with their finance people and we described this system to them and they were blown away.”

It took a few years for the team to refocus their efforts on streamlining back-office processes for startups, opting to build business chat software in Zulip first.

Pilot’s software integrates with other financial services products to bring the bookkeeping process into the 21st century. Its platform, for example, works seamlessly on top of QuickBooks so customers aren’t wasting precious time updating and managing the accounting application.

“It’s better than the slow, painful process of doing it yourself and it’s better than hiring a third-party bookkeeper,” Daher said. “If you care at all about having the work be high-quality, you have to have software do it. People aren’t good at these mechanical, repetitive, formula-driven tasks.”

Currently, Pilot handles bookkeeping for more than $100 million per month in financial transactions but hopes to use the infusion of venture funding to accelerate customer adoption. The company also plans to launch a tax prep offering that they say will make the tax prep experience “easy and seamless.”

“It’s our first foray into Pilot’s larger mission, which is taking care of running your companies entire back office so you can focus on your business,” Daher said.

As for whether the team will sell to another big acquirer, it’s unlikely.

“The opportunity for Pilot is so large and so substantive, I think it would be a mistake for this to be anything other than a large and enduring public company,” Daher said. “This is the company that we’re going to do this with.”

Categories: Business News

Working backwards to uncover key success factors

2019, April 19 - 4:00am
Ed Byrne Contributor Share on Twitter Ed Byrne is an entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of Scaleworks. More posts by this contributor

If you’re a SaaS business,  you’re likely overwhelmed with data and an ever-growing list of acronyms that purport to unlock secret keys to your success. But like most things,  tracking with you do has very little impact on what you actually do.

It’s really important to find one, or a very small number, of key indicators to track and then base your activities against those. It’s arguable that SaaS businesses are becoming TOO data driven — at the expense of focussing on the core business and the reason they exist.

In this article, we’ll look at focusing on metrics that matter, metrics that help form activities, not just measure them in retrospect.

Most of the metrics we track, such as revenue growth, are lagging indicators. But growth is a result, not an activity you can drive. Just saying you want to grow an extra 10% doesn’t mean anything towards actually achieving it.

Since growth funnels are generally looked at from top to bottom, and in a historical context — a good exercise can be the other way around — go bottom-up, starting with the end result (the growth goal) and figure out what each stage needs to contribute to achieve it.

You can do this by looking at leading indicators. These are metrics that you can influence — and that as you act, and see them increase or decrease, you can be relatively certain of the knock-on effects on the rest of the business. For example — if you run a project management product, the number of tasks created is likely to be a good leading indicator for the growth of the business — more tasks created on the platform equals more revenue.

Categories: Business News

Uber, Lyft implement new safety measures

2019, April 19 - 3:24am

Uber and Lyft instituted new safety features and policies this week.

The move follows the death of Samantha Josephson, a student at the University of South Carolina, who was kidnapped and murdered in late March. She was found dead after getting into a vehicle that she believed to be her Uber ride. The murder, which has garnered nationwide media attention, seems to have spurred action by the ride sharing behemoths.

In response, Uber is launching the Campus Safety Initiative, which includes new features in the app. Currently, the features are in testing, and they remind riders to check the license plate, make, and model of the car, as well as the driver’s name and picture, before ever entering into a vehicle. The test is running in South Carolina, in partnership with the University of South Carolina, with plans to roll out nationwide.

Lyft, which went public on March 29, has implemented continuous background checks for drivers this week. (Uber has had in place since last year.) Lyft also enhanced its identify verification process for drivers, which combines driver’s license verification and photographic identity verification to prevent driver identify fraud on the platform.

Uber, prepping to debut on the public market, is taking the safety precautions seriously. The new system reminds riders about checking their ride three separate times: the first is a banner at the bottom of the app once the ride has been ordered, the second is a warning to check license plate, car details and photo, and the third is an actual push notification before the driver arrives reminding riders to check once more.

Alongside the reminder system, Uber told is also working to build out dedicated pickup zones in the Five Points district of Columbia, with plans to roll out dedicated pick-up zones at other U.S. universities.

That said, Uber has also warned investors ahead of its IPO about a forthcoming safety report on the company, which could be damaging to the brand. The report is supposed to be released sometime this year, and will give the public its first comprehensive look at the scale of safety incidents and issues that occur on the platform.

“The public responses to this transparency report or similar public reporting of safety incidents claimed to have occurred on our platform … may result in negative media coverage and increased regulatory scrutiny and could adversely affect our reputation with platform users,” said Uber in its April 14 IPO paperwork.

Indeed, the issue of safety on platforms like Uber and Lyft, or really any app that asks you to be alone with total strangers, goes well beyond any single incident. A CNN investigation found that 103 Uber drivers had been accused of sexual assault or abuse in the last four years.

Categories: Business News

The different playbooks of D2C brands

2019, April 19 - 1:35am
Ashwin Ramasamy Contributor Share on Twitter Ashwin Ramasamy is the cofounder of PipeCandy that provides algorithm-generated insights and predictions about eCommerce and D2C companies. His company helps investors, banks, tech firms and governments understand the global eCommerce landscape. @Ashwinizer More posts by this contributor

Over the past half a decade, the tidal wave of niche brands delivering new kinds of products to consumers and doing so online has changed the retail and CPG landscapes forever.

This shift has in some way caused a shakeout in traditional retail, with once-popular retailers announcing store closures (JCPenney, Sears) or even liquidation (Payless, Toys R Us) and has sent fashion houses and CPG brands on a soul-searching journey. The changing demographics and desires of shoppers have also fueled the decline of traditional brands and their distribution mechanisms.

This bleak scenario of incumbent consumer brands is in stark contrast to the rapid emergence of a host of digitally-native Direct to Consumer (D2C) brands. A few D2C brands have been successful enough to become unicorns! Retailers like Walmart, Nordstrom, and Target have quickly adapted to the D2C era.

Walmart has made a string of acquisitions beginning with Jet.com and Bonobos. Nordstrom has broadened its assortment to include D2C brands, Target has partnered with Harry’s, Quip, and Flamingo – all of which have rolled out their products in Target’s stores across the country. Target has also invested in Casper, which is the latest D2C brand to become a Unicorn.

Venture capital firms have invested over four billion dollars in D2C brands since 2012, with 2018 alone accounting for over a billion. With investment comes pressure to scale and deliver profits. And this pressure is bringing the focus on some pertinent questions – How are these D2C brands going to evolve and how could they sustain as businesses?

Like always, the pioneering companies find their path and we then derive the playbooks out of them. From PipeCandy’s analysis of several D2C brands, we see the following approaches taken by D2C brands.

  • Playbook 1: Brand’s purpose anchored around one product category
  • Playbook 2: Brand’s purpose anchored around multiple product categories
  • Playbook 3: Brand’s purpose anchored around aggregation of other brands (for sale or rent)

We discuss the market size and capital availability factors that influence the paths and the outcomes.

Table of Contents
  1. D2C playbooks
    1. Playbook 1: Brand’s purpose anchored around one product category
    2. Playbook 2: Brand’s purpose anchored around multiple product categories
    3. Playbook 3: Brand’s purpose anchored around aggregation of other brands (for sale or rent)
  2. Access to capital and how D2C playbooks are impacted
  3. The VC route to scale
  4. The non-VC route to scale
  5. Outcome without hitting scale
  6. Roll-ups by strategic buyers
  7. Roll-ups by financial buyers
  8. Brand incubators
Brand’s Purpose anchored around one product category

Many of these D2C brands that have experienced early success owe their rise largely to an authentic relationship with consumers that is built on the promise of one product. In many ways, focusing on one product line and a small set of SKUs makes total business sense.

Design, Production, Marketing & Customer Support complexities can stay manageable with such deliberate narrowing down of focus.

In some categories, you could stay focused on one product line for a long time and build a successful company.

Categories: Business News

HipChat founders launch Swoot, a social podcast app

2019, April 19 - 12:34am

Pete Curley and Garret Heaton, who previously co-founded team chat app HipChat and sold it to Atlassian, are officially launching their new product, Swoot, today. The app makes it easy for users to recommend podcasts and see what their friends are listening to.

This might seem like a big leap from selling enterprise software — and indeed, Curley said the company was initially focused on creating another set of team collaboration tools.

What they realized, however, was that HipChat is “actually a consumer product that the company just happens to pay for, because the employees demand it” — and he said they weren’t terribly interested in trying to build a business around a more traditional “top-down sales process.”

Meanwhile, Curley said he’d injured his back while lowering one of his children into a crib, which meant that for months, his only form of exercise was walking. He recalled walking around for hours each day and, for the first time, keeping himself entertained by listening to podcasts.

“I was actually way behind the times,” he said. “I didn’t know this, that everyone else was listening to them … This is like the dark web of content.”

The startup has already raised a $3 million seed funding round led by True Ventures .

“Pete and Garret both have incredible product and entrepreneurial experience, plus they have built successful businesses together in the past,” said True Ventures co-founder Jon Callaghan in a statement. “Their focus of solving the disjointed podcast listening experience through Swoot’s elegant design fills a clear gap in media discovery.”

Discovery — namely, finding new podcasts beyond the handful that you already subscribe to — is one of the biggest issues in podcasting right now. It’s something a number of companies are trying to solve, but in Curley’s view, the key is to make the listening experience more social.

He noted that social sharing features are getting added to “literally everything,” including your bathroom scale, except “the one thing that I actually wanted it for.”

Curley also contrasted the podcast listening experience with YouTube: “We don’t realize how big [podcasting] is because there is no social thing where you see that Gangnam Style has 8 billion views, and you realize that the entire world is watching. There’s no view count, no anything that tells you what’s popular.”

So he’s trying to provide that view with Swoot. Instead of focusing on overall listen counts (which might not be that impressive in a new app), Swoot gives you two main ways to track what’s popular among your friends.

There’s a feed that shows you everything that your friends are listening to or recommending, plus a list of episodes that are currently trending, with little icons showing you the friends who have listened to at least 20 percent of an episode.

Curley said the team has been beta testing the app by simply releasing it on the App Store and telling friends about it, then letting it spread by word of mouth until it was in the hands of around 1,000 users. During that test, it found that 25 percent of the podcasts that users listened to were coming from friends.

Curley also noted that this approach is “episode-centric” rather than “show-centric.” In other words, it’s not just helping you find the next podcast that you want to subscribe to and listen to for years — it also helps surface the specific episode that everyone’s listening to right now.

“In the 700,000 shows that exist, if you’re the 690,000 worst-ranked show, but you have one great episode that should be able to go viral, that’s basically impossible to do right now, because audio is crazy hard to share,” Curley said.

In the course of our conversation, I brought up my experience with Spotify — I like knowing what’s popular, but when a friend recently mentioned specific songs that they could see I’d been listening to on the service, I was a bit creeped out.

“It’s funny, I actually thought, how ironic that Spotify is getting into podcasting now [through the acquisitions of Gimlet and Anchor],” Curley replied. “They actually had this correct mechanism applied to the wrong thing. Music is a deeply personal thing.”

Why Spotify is betting big on podcasting

Which isn’t to say that podcast listening isn’t personal, but there’s more of an opportunity to discover overlapping interests, say the fact that you and your friends all listen to true crime podcasts.

Curley also said that the app is deliberately designed to ensure that “the service does not get worse because a ton of people follow you” — so they see what you are listening to, but they can’t comment on it or tell you that you’re an idiot for listening.

At the same time, he also said the team will be adding a mode to only share podcasts you actively recommend, rather than posting everything you listen to.

As for making money, Curley suggested that he’s interested in exploring a variety of possibilities, whether that’s integrating with other subscription or tipping services, or in creating ad opportunities around promoting podcasts.

“My actual answer is, there are a bunch of people trying to monetize right now, but I don’t think there’s a platform even close to mature enough to even try to monetize podcasting yet, other than podcasters doing their own advertising,” he said. “I think the endgame, where the real money is made in podcasting, actually hasn’t been come up with yet.”

Categories: Business News

Y Combinator grad Fuzzbuzz lands $2.7M seed round to deliver fuzzing as service

2019, April 19 - 12:00am

Fuzzbuzz, a graduate of the most recent Y Combinator class, got the kind of news every early-stage startup wants to hear when it landed a $2.7 million seed round to help deliver a special class of automated software testing known as fuzzing in the form of a cloud service.

Fuel Capital led the round. Homebrew and Susa Ventures also participated, along with various angel investors, including Docker co-founder Solomon Hykes, Mesosphere co-founder Florian Leibert and Looker co-founder Ben Porterfield.

What Fuzzbuzz does specifically is automate fuzzing at scale, says co-founder and CEO Andrei Serban. “It’s a type of automated software testing that can perform thousands of tests per second,” he explained. Fuzzbuzz is also taking advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning underpinnings to use feedback from the results to generate new tests automatically, so that it should get smarter as it goes along.

The goal is to cover as much of the code as possible, much faster and more efficiently than human testers ever could, and find vulnerabilities and bugs. It’s the kind of testing every company generating code would obviously want to do, but the problem is that up until now the process has been expensive and required highly specialized security engineers to undertake. Companies like Google and Facebook are able to hire these kinds of people to build fuzzing solutions, but for the most part, it’s been out of reach for your average company.

Serban says his co-founder, Everest Munro-Zeisberger, worked on the Google Chrome fuzzing team, which has surfaced more than 15,000 bugs using this technique. He wanted to put this type of testing in reach of anyone.

“Today, anyone can start fuzzing on Fuzzbuzz in less than 20 minutes. We hook directly into GitHub and your CI/CD pipeline, categorize and de-duplicate each bug found, and then notify you through tools like Slack and Jira. Using the Fuzzbuzz CLI, developers can then test and fix the bug locally before pushing their code back up to GitHub,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the funding.

It’s still early days, and the startup is working with some initial customers. The funding should help the three founders, Serban, Munro-Zeisberger and Sabera Hussain, to hire more engineers and bring a more complete solution to market. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but if it succeeds in creating a fuzzing service, it could mean delivering code with fewer bugs, and that would be good for everyone.

All 88 companies from Y Combinator’s W19 Demo Day 2

Categories: Business News

VCs bet on cannabis vaping, ED meds and mobile fertility clinics

2019, April 18 - 10:10pm

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

This week was a bit of a reunion with Kate and Alex on as usual, with the addition of Extra Crunch denizen extraordinaire Danny Crichton. Danny, you may recall, has been a semi-regular Equity co-host over the past year.

As Kate explains up front, Equity is out a day early this week due to the Big TechCrunch Robotics Affair in Berkeley today. We’ll be back on Friday with IPO news regarding Zoom and Pinterest, and we can’t wait.

OK, all that sorted, what did we talk about? Alex wanted to talk about some market signals that he reads as bullish. Whatever went wrong at the end of 2018 has healed over, he thinks, because there have been a whole lot of supergiant venture capital rounds and some other stuff.

Next, we gave an example of one of those supergiant rounds in the works. The reported Pax round, which could put $400 million into the cannabis vaping company, intrigues us, especially because Pax is the corporate sibling of JUUL, the now-famous e-cigarette company what sold just over a third of itself for nearly $13 billion last year. A truly staggering deal.

Then we turned to Brex, the fintech startup that was back in the news this week. Why? Because it raised a $100 million debt round as startups of that sort do. Brex provides a credit card made specifically for startups that require no personal-guarantee. Yeah, risky, we know. We talked about that risk and Brex’s plan to target Fortune 500 business in the future.

Rounds for Ro, Kindbody and Carrot Fertility made it a busy week for healthtech, too. Ro is raising at a $500 million valuation to support its three digital health brands: Roman, Rory and Zero. Meanwhile, a pair of fertility startups, Kindbody and Carrot, brought in $15 million and $11 million, respectively.

With Danny back on the show, we extended our reach and discussed the latest in the chip and sensor world. NXP, fresh off a failed, multi-billion-dollar exit to Qualcomm, put money into Hawkeye Technology, a China-based company working in the car sensor space. Equity’s regular hosts mostly nodded as Danny dropped a lot of knowledge.

All that and we had some fun. We’ll be back before you know it.

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

Categories: Business News

Astroscreen raises $1M to detect social media manipulation with machine learning

2019, April 18 - 8:35pm

In an era of social media manipulation and disinformation, we could sure use some help from innovative entrepreneurs. Social networks are now critical to how the public consumes and shares the news. But these networks were never built for an informed debate about the news. They were built to reward virality. That means they are open to manipulation for commercial and political gain.

Fake social media accounts – bots (automated) and ‘sock-puppets’ (human-run) – can be used in a highly organized way to spread and amplify minor controversies or fabricated and misleading content, eventually influencing other influencers and even news organizations. And brands are hugely open to this threat. The use of such disinformation to discredit brands has the potential for very costly and damaging disruption when up to 60% of a company’s market value can lie in its brand.

Astroscreen is a startup which uses machine learning and disinformation analysts to detect social media manipulation. It’s now secured $1M in initial funding to progress its technology. And it has a heritage which suggests it at least has a shot at achieving this.

Its techniques include coordinated activity detection, linguistic fingerprinting and fake account and botnet detection.

The funding round was led by Speedinvest, Luminous Ventures, UCL Technology Fund, which is managed by AlbionVC in collaboration with UCLB, AISeed, and the London Co-investment Fund.

Astroscreen CEO Ali Tehrani previously founded a machine-learning news analytics company which he sold in 2015 before fake news gained widespread attention. He said: “While I was building my previous start-up I saw at first-hand how biased, polarising news articles were shared and artificially amplified by vast numbers of fake accounts. This gave the stories high levels of exposure and authenticity they wouldn’t have had on their own.”

Astroscreen’s CTO Juan Echeverria, whose Ph.D. at UCL was on fake account detection on social networks, made headlines in January 2017 with the discovery of a massive botnet managing some 350,000 separate accounts on Twitter.

Ali Tehrani also thinks social networks are effectively holed-below the waterline on this whole issue: “Social media platforms themselves cannot solve this problem because they’re looking for scalable solutions to maintain their software margins. If they devoted sufficient resources, their profits would look more like a newspaper publisher than a tech company. So, they’re focused on detecting collective anomalies – accounts and behavior that deviate from the norm for their userbase as a whole. But this is only good at detecting spam accounts and highly automated behavior, not the sophisticated techniques of disinformation campaigns.”

Astroscreen takes a different approach, combining machine-learning and human intelligence to detect contextual (instead of collective) anomalies – behavior that deviates from the norm for a specific topic. It monitors social networks for signs of disinformation attacks, informing brands if they’re under attack at the earliest stages and giving them enough time to mitigate the negative effects.

Lomax Ward, partner, Luminous Ventures, said: “The abuse of social media is a
significant societal issue and Astroscreen’s defence mechanisms are a key part of the solution.”

Categories: Business News

Marketing platform startup Adverity raises $12.4M in round led by Felix Capital

2019, April 18 - 6:48pm

Marketers get a lot of incoming information from the data they have to deal with, bound up in hundreds of spreadsheets and reports, making it time-consuming and tricky to get value out of it. Tech companies like Datorama and Funnel.io have appeared to try to lighten this load.

Adverity is a data intelligence platform also playing in this space by applying AI to produce actionable insights in real time.

Founded in 2015, it’s a cloud-agnostic SaaS platform compatible with Amazon, Google and Microsoft that provides data to destinations such as SQL databases, Snowflake, AWS Redshift, SAP HANA. Its business model is based on yearly subscription fees.

It has now closed an €11 million ($12.4 million) Series B funding round, bringing the total amount raised to date to €15 million ($17 million). The investment is led by London-based Felix Capital, with participation from Silicon Valley’s Sapphire Ventures and the SAP.iO fund. The company now plans to use its war chest to expand into the U.S. market.

In addition to the latest round of investors, Adverity continues to be backed by existing investors, including Speedinvest, Mangrove Capital (early backer of Skype, Wix.com and Walkman), 42cap and local Austrian company the AWS Founders Fund.

Adverity’s latest AI-powered product, Presense, is currently under closed beta testing for select clients and will be launched later this year.

Alexander Igelsböck, CEO and co-founder of Adverity, commented: “Every company wants and needs to be data-driven. This is especially true in marketing where the fragmentation of data, and complexity in getting insights from it, poses a huge challenge for CMOs. Adverity’s mission is to solve those challenges by eliminating the hurdles facing companies today.”

Adverity’s clients include companies such as IKEA, Red Bull, Mediacom, Mindshare and IPG. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the company has offices across London, Sofia and Frankfurt.

Sasha Astafyeva, principal at Felix Capital, commented: “Data is a powerful tool for engaging customers and Adverity helps marketers harness the power of their data to make better decisions, grow their business and better serve their customers.”

The company’s founding members are Alexander Igelsböck, Martin Brunthaler and Andreas Glänzer. Igelsböck previously headed a startup incubator in Austria (KochAbo GmbH), and prior to that was VP Product Management at VeriSign Inc., where he met Brunthaler, who was director of Engineering. Glänzer’s experience was gained in a sales role at Google and as regional head of iProspect. The three previously founded a price comparison technology company that was acquired by Heise Media in Germany.

Categories: Business News

Weengs, the UK logistics startup for online retailers, collects £6.5M Series A

2019, April 18 - 6:00pm

Weengs, the U.K. logistics startup for e-commerce businesses that need a more convenient way of getting online orders to customers, has raised £6.5 million in Series A funding. Leading the round is venture capital firm Oxford Capital, with Weeng’s seed investors, including Local Globe, Cherry Ventures and VentureFriends, following on.

Founded by Alex Christodolou and Greg Zontanos, provides small and medium-sized online stores of various kinds, including eBay and Amazon power sellers and brick ‘n’ mortar stores with an e-commerce component, with a “ship-from-store” logistics solution that handles collection, packing and delivery.

The basic premise is that time costs money, which can make e-commerce quite prohibitive. By outsourcing time-consuming and labour intensive logistics, store owners can put their time into other more profitable and differentiating aspects of their business, such as sales and marketing, and customer experience.

To make this work, Weengs collects orders daily from retailers’ stores, and professionally packs them back at the Weengs warehouse before they are shipped to customers via the couriers the company partners with.

Weengs says it can pack and ship a broad range of products globally, including less obvious items such as plants to musical instruments, electronics and everyday items like cosmetics. It has developed algorithms to pick the most appropriate courier service based on the item and customer priorities.

“Our business is part of the rising omnichannel opportunity we are seeing in retail,” says Pier Ronzi, Weeng’s more recently added co-founder and CEO. “Increasingly, it makes sense for retailers to ship-from-store. Basically cities and stores are becoming distributed inventories that retailers can leverage to increase their business and Weengs helps them [by] offering a one-stop-shop solution for their fulfilment while they can focus on their core activity”.

Since Weengs’ seed round, the team has grown to 70 people and saw Ronzi, who previously worked at McKinsey&Co, join the company. The startup now has around 400 retailers as customers and says it has fulfilled more than 500,000 online orders to date.

“We have learnt that our service saves retailers a huge amount of time and that is the key to our value proposition versus, for example, price,” says Ronzi. Prior to Weengs, customers typically handled fulfilment themselves or used costly fulfilment centres.

To that end, Weengs says it will use the new funding to invest heavily in its new warehouse and accompanying automation and technology. The plan is to “supercharge” operations to be able to fulfil more than 15,000 e-commerce orders per day.

Explains the Weengs CEO: “The packing operations today is mainly manual. In the new automated warehouse we are implementing a process governed by our software and leveraging a packing machine that automatically performs the packing operations: the order item is fed to the machine and, at the end of a quick automated process, the order comes out packed in a very high standard and bespoke box, labelled and ready to be handed over to the carriers. The process becomes heavily automated but we still add the human touch for value added activities such as preparation of fragile items and supervision of the whole process”.

Categories: Business News

Bankin’ raises $22.6 million for its financial coach

2019, April 18 - 5:35pm

French startup Bankin’ is raising a new $22.6 million funding round (€20 million). The company has managed to attract 2.9 million users in France and wants to become the only app you need to manage your money.

Overall, Bankin’ has raised over $32 million (€28.4 million). Investors include Omnes Capital, Commerz Ventures, Génération New Tech, Didier Kuhn, Simon Dawlat and Franck Lheurre.

Bankin’ first developed an aggregator so that you could view all your bank accounts from a single app. The company has been using a combination of APIs and scrapping to connect to nearly all French banks, 85 percent of Spanish and British banks and 65 percent of German banks.

The app automatically categorizes your transactions and sends you push notifications to alert you of important changes. There’s also a budget feature that can predict how much money you’ll have at the end of the month.

Bankin’ went one step further and started adding transfers from the app. If you want to ditch your bank app, you need to be able to view your balance and your transactions, but you also need to be able to send and receive money.

And now, Bankin’ wants to become your financial coach with automated recommendations and human-powered conversations. The app has been redesigned a couple of months ago to put these recommendations front and center.

For instance, the app can tell you if it’s time to renegotiate your loan, or that you should optimize your savings. The startup partners with other fintech companies, such as Yomoni, Pretto, Transferwise and Fluo, as well as online banks. This could be an interesting acquisition channel for other companies and a good revenue opportunity for Bankin’.

Finally, Bankin’ also sells access to its API called Bridge. For instance, Sage, Milleis Banque, Cegid and RCA use Bridge so that you can connect your third-party bank accounts and view them from your main bank account.

With today’s funding round, the company plans to hire reasonably. There are now 50 people working for Bankin’ and the startup plans to hire 20 more people this year.

Categories: Business News

Phantom Auto raises $13.5M to expand remote driving business to delivery bots and forklifts

2019, April 18 - 4:01pm

Remote driving startup Phantom Auto has raised $13.5 million of financing in a Series A round led by Bessemer Venture Partners — capital used to expand a logistics business targeting sidewalks, warehouses and cargo yards, all the places where autonomy and teleoperation are being deployed today.

The startup, founded in 2017, has raised about $19 million to date. Byron Deeter and Tess Hatch from Bessemer have joined Phantom’s board.

The so-called “race” to deploy self-driving trucks, robotaxi services and other applications of autonomous vehicle technology on public roads has encountered a speed bump of sorts that has sent ripples throughout the nascent industry.

In short: autonomous vehicles are hard and everyone seems to be waking up to that fact.

As deployment timelines have moved, companies have quieted. Some have pivoted, shuttered or been snapped up in acquisitions by other better-capitalized companies looking for talent. Other companies, like Phantom Auto that are adjacent to the industry, are expanding into new areas as they wait for autonomous vehicle developers to catch up.

Phantom Auto co-founder Elliot Katz emphasized that the company is still working with customers deploying autonomous passenger and commercial vehicles on public roads. This new logistics business, however, holds more near-term potential. 

“We continue to be designed into our customers’ stacks who are focusing on AVs on public roads, but it will take some time for autonomous passenger vehicles and commercial trucks to be deployed at scale,” Phantom founder Shai Magzimof said in a statement.

The company is working with some of the largest logistics companies in the world, Katz said. Phantom Auto isn’t providing a full list of customers yet; one named partner is Dutch yard truck manufacturer Terberg.

Katz told TechCrunch that customers include companies launching autonomous delivery robots. They’re also using the platform to remotely operate forklifts and yard trucks equipped with its teleoperation software. Yard trucks are used by major retailers, for example. 

There has been zero innovation with yard trucks in the past 40 years,” Katz said. “And customers in this segment are itching to gain efficiencies. That’s the name of the game for them. They see this as a path to get there.”

Phantom Auto’s teleoperation platform allows a remote driver, sometimes located thousands of miles away, to take control of an autonomous vehicle if needed. The platform, which uses public cellular networks, isn’t designed to take over in a split second in hopes of avoiding an accident. Instead, it’s used as a safety backup to take control of the vehicle if it encounters a difficult scenario and gets confused, or is even involved in an accident.

In the logistics application, the Phantom Auto system is used in low-speed environments. A remote control center could control a company’s yard trucks anywhere in the country.

Phantom Auto isn’t employing the remote drivers in this use case. Instead, Katz said these logistics customers typically want to train their own employees how to use the platform. And this doesn’t necessarily replace drivers who are on the ground operating these yard trucks or forklifts. The system is seen as a way to use workers at one location that is experiencing a lull in activity to remotely operate a busier spot farther away.

For delivery robots, the platform can be used to help the vehicle handle tricky situations, like stairs or other complex environments.

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