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Apple said to be working a high-priced standalone VR headset as debut mixed reality product 21 Jan 2021, 8:36 am

Apple is reportedly working on developing a high-end virtual reality headset for a potential sales debut in 2022, per a new Bloomberg report. The headset would include its own built-in processors and power supply, and could feature a chip even more powerful than the M1 Apple Silicon processor that the company currently ships on its MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro, according to the report’s sources.

As is typical for a report this far out from a target launch date, Bloomberg offers a caveat that these plans could be changed or cancelled altogether. Apple undoubtedly kills a lot of its projects before they ever see the light of day, even in cases where they include a lot of time and capital investment. And the headset will reportedly cost even more than some of the current higher-priced VR headset offerings on the market, which can range up to nearly $1,000, with the intent of selling it initially as a low-volume niche device aimed at specialist customers – kind of like the Mac Pro and Pro Display XDR that Apple currently sells.

The headset will reportedly focus mostly on VR, but will also include some augmented reality features, in a limited capacity, for overlaying visuals on real world views fed in by external cameras. This differs from prior reports that suggested Apple was pursuing consumer AR smart glasses as its likely first headset product in the mixed reality category for consumer distribution. Bloomberg reports that while this VR headset is at a late prototype stage of development, its AR glasses are much earlier in the design process and could follow the VR headset introduction by at least a year or more.

The strategy here appears to be creating a high-tech, high-performance and high-priced device that will only ever sell in small volume, but that will help it begin to develop efficiencies and lower the production costs of technologies involved, in order to pave the way for more mass-market devices later.

The report suggests the product could be roughly the same size as the Oculus Quest, with a fabric exterior to help reduce weight. The external cameras could also be used for environment and hand tracking, and there is the possibility that it will debut with its own App Store designed for VR content.

Virtual reality is still a nascent category even as measured by the most successful products currently available in the market, the Oculus Quest and the PlayStation VR. But Facebook at least seems to see a lot of long-term value in continuing to invest in and iterate its VR product, and Apple’s view could be similar. The company has already put a lot of focus and technical development effort into AR on the iPhone, and CEO Tim Cook has expressed a lot of optimism about AR’s future in a number of interviews.

Creative Fabrica, a platform for digital crafting resources, lands $7 million Series A 21 Jan 2021, 8:16 am

Roemie Hillenaar and Anca Stefan, the co-founders of Creative Fabrica

Roemie Hillenaar and Anca Stefan, the co-founders of Creative Fabrica

Creative Fabrica is best known as a marketplace for digital files, like fonts, graphics and machine embroidery designs, created for crafters. Now the Amsterdam-based startup is planning to expand into new verticals, including yarn crafts and projects for kids, with a $7 million Series A round led by Felix Capital. FJ Labs and returning investor Peak Capital also participated.

The new funding brings Creative Fabrica’s total raised to about $7.6 million, including its 2019 seed round.

Before launching Creative Fabrica in 2016, co-founders Anca Stefan and Roemie Hillenaar ran a digital agency. The startup was created to make finding digital files for creative projects easier. It started as a marketplace, but now also includes a showcase for finished projects, tools for creating fonts and word art, and a subscription service called the Craft Club. The company currently claims more than one million users around the world, with about 60% located in the United States and 20% in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Creative Fabrica’s sellers make money in a couple of ways. If their digital assets are purchased individually, they get 50% of revenue. Files downloaded through the subscription service are assigned points, with creators receiving revenue at the end of the subscription period based on the number of points they accumulate.

Hillenaar, the company’s chief executive officer, told TechCrunch that Creative Fabrica launches new verticals based on what they see users sharing on their platform. For example, its designs are often used for die-cutting, and it recently launched POD (print on demand) files and digital embroidery verticals based on user interest.

Many of the files sold on Creative Fabrica include a commercial license and about 35% of its users actively sell the crafts they make. There are several other marketplaces that offers digital downloads for crafters and designers, including Etsy and Creative Market. Hillenaar said Creative Fabrica’s automated curation gives it more control over copyright infringement than Etsy, which means its users have more assurance that they can sell things made with its files without running into issues. While Creative Market also sells fonts, vector graphics and other files, it is mostly targeted toward publishers and website designers. Creative Fabrica’s focus on crafters means it files are designed to work with home equipment like Silhouette, a die-cutting machine.

Creative Fabrica also focuses on the entire creative process of a crafter or the “full funnel,” Hillenaar added. For example, someone who wants to make decorations for a birthday party can look through projects shared to the platform for inspiration, download digital materials and then start crafting using Creative Fabrica’s tutorials. Since many of Creative Fabrica’s crafts involve equipment like desktop die-cutting machines or sewing and embroidery machines, the platform offers a series of comprehensive tutorials to help crafters get started.

As Creative Fabrica expands into verticals like yarn crafts (it already offers knitting and crochet patterns) and kids projects, it’ll compete more directly with site likes Ravelry, which many yarn crafters rely on for patterns and services like Kiwi Crate that supply materials and instructions for children. Hillenaar said Creative Fabrica’s value proposition is focusing on the many people who take part in several different kinds of crafts.

According to a report from the Association for Creative Industries, about 63% of American households are involved with some form of craft. Out of that number, most partake in multiple kinds of projects.

“Somebody who is knitting is also likely to do die-cutting or woodworking, or another type of craft,” he said. “We believe that with our holistic view on this market we can cater to your whole creative crafting side instead of focusing on just one niche.”

Google inks agreement in France on paying publishers for news reuse 21 Jan 2021, 7:18 am

Google has reached an agreement with an association of French publishers over how it will be pay for reuse of snippets of their content. This is a result of application of a ‘neighbouring right’ for news which was transposed into national law following a pan-EU copyright reform agreed back in 2019.

The tech giant had sought to evade paying French publishers for use of content snippets in its news aggregation and search products by no longer displaying them in the country.

But in April last year the French competition watchdog quashed its attempt to avoid payments, using an urgent procedure known as interim measures — deeming Google’s unilateral withdrawal of snippets to be unfair and damaging to the press sector, and likely to constitute an abuse of a dominant market position.

A few months later Google lost an appeal against the watchdog’s injunction ordering it to negotiate to pay for reuse of snippets — leaving it little choice but to sit at the table with French publishers and talk payment.

L’Alliance de la Presse d’Information Générale (APIG), which represents the interests of around 300 political and general information press titles in France, announced the framework agreement today, writing that it sets the terms of negotiation with its members for Google’s reuse of their content.

In a statement, Pierre Louette, CEO of Groupe Les Echos – Le Parisien, and president of L’Alliance, said: “After long months of negotiations, this agreement is an important milestone, which marks the effective recognition of the neighboring rights of press publishers and the beginning of their remuneration by digital platforms for the use of their online publications.”

L’@Alliance_Presse et @GoogleEnFrance signent un accord relatif à l'utilisation des publications de presse en ligne pic.twitter.com/t2QEeBMwX3

— AlliancePresse (@Alliance_Presse) January 21, 2021

Google has also put out a blog post — lauding what it said is a “major step forward” after months of negotiations with French publishers.

The agreement “establishes a framework within which Google will negotiate individual licensing agreements with IPG certified publishers within APIG’s membership, while reflecting the principles of the law”, it said.

IPG certification refers to a status that online media organizations in France can gain if they meet certain quality standards, such as having at least one professional journalist on staff and having a main purpose of creating permanent and continuous content that provides political and general information of interest to a wide and varied audience.

“These agreements will cover publishers’ neighboring rights, and allow for participation in News Showcase, a new licencing program recently launched by Google to provide readers access to enriched content,” Google added, making reference to a news partnership program it announced last year — which it said would have an initial $1BN investment.

Google to pay out $1B to publishers to license content for new Google News Showcase

Google has not confirmed how much money will be distributed to publishers in France solely under the agreed framework over content reuse which is directly linked to the neighbouring right.

And the News Showcase program which Google spun up quickly last year looks conveniently designed to help it obfuscate the value of individual payments it may be legally required to make to publishers for reusing their content.

The tech giant told us it is in conversations with publishers in many countries to negotiate agreements for News Showcase — a program that is not limited to the EU.

It also said earlier investments announced with publishers under Showcase come as it anticipates legal regimes that may exist once the EU’s copyright directive is implemented in other countries, adding that it will evaluate laws as and when they are introduced.

(NB: France was among the first EU countries to the punch to transpose the copyright directive; application of the neighbouring right will expand across the bloc as other Member States bake the directive into national law.)

On the French agreements specifically, Google said they are for its News Showcase but are also inclusive of the publisher’s neighboring rights, after we asked about the separation between payments that will be made under the French framework and Google’s News Showcase. So about as clear as mud, then.

The tech giant did tell us it has reached individual agreements with a handful of French publishers so far, including (major national newspaper titles) Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération.

It added that payments will go direct to publishers and terms will not be disclosed — noting they are strictly confidential. It also said these individual deals with publishers take account of the neighbouring right framework but also reflect individual publisher needs and differences.

On criteria for payments for neighbouring rights, Google’s blog post states: “The remuneration that is included in these licensing agreements is based on criteria such as the publisher’s contribution to political and general information (IPG certified publishers), the daily volume of publications, and its monthly internet traffic.”

On this, Google also told us it is focused on IPG publishers because the French law is too (it pointed to a line of the law that states: “The amount of this remuneration takes into account elements such as human, material and financial investments made by publishers and press agencies, the contribution to press publications to political and general information and the importance of use of press publications by online public communication services.”)

But it added that its door remains open to discussion with other non APIG publishers.

Google must negotiate to pay for French news, appeals court confirms

We also reached out to L’Alliance with questions and will update this report with any response.

Although individual payments to publishers under the French framework are not being disclosed the agreement looks like a major win for Europe’s press sector — which had lobbied extensively to extend copyright to news snippets via the EU’s controversial copyright reform.

Some individual EU Member States — including Germany and Spain — previously attempted to get Google to pay publishers by baking similar copyright provisions into national law. But in those instances Google either forced publishers to give it their snippets for free (by playing traffic-hungry publishers off against each other) or shut down Google News entirely. So some payment is clearly better than nada.

That said, with details of the terms of individual deals not disclosed — and no clarity over exactly how remunerations will be calculated — there’s a lot that remains murky over Google paying for news reuse.

Neither Google nor L’Alliance have said how much money will be distributed in total under the French agreement to covered publishers. 

Another issue we’re curious about is how the framework will protect publishers from changes to Google’s search algorithms that could have a negative impact on traffic to their sites.

This seems important given that monthly traffic is one of the criteria being used to determine payment. (And it’s not hard to find examples of such negative search ‘blips’.)

It also looks clear that the more publishers Google can attract into its ‘News Showcase’ program, the more options Google will have for displaying news snippets in its products — and therefore at a price it has more power to set.

So the longer term impact of the application of the EU’s copyright directive on publisher revenues — and, indeed, how it might influence the quality of online journalism that Google accelerates into Internet users’ eyeballs — remains to be seen.

The French competition watchdog’s investigation also remains ongoing. Google said it continues to engage with that probe.

In 2019 the national watchdog slapped Google with a €150 million fine for abusing its dominant position in the online search advertising market — sanctioning it for “opaque and difficult to understand” operating rules for its ad platform, Google Ads, and for applying them in “an unfair and random manner.”

While, last October, the US Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google — alleging that the company is “unlawfully maintaining monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising, and general search text advertising”.

The UK’s competition watchdog has also raised concerns about the ad market dominance of Google and Facebook, asking for views on breaking up Google back in 2019. The UK government has since said it will establish a pro-competition regulator to put limits on big tech.

France’s competition watchdog orders Google to pay for news reuse

Israel’s startup ecosystem powers ahead, amid a year of change 21 Jan 2021, 7:01 am

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

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

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

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

After a record year for Israeli startups, 16 investors tell us what’s next

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

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

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

So how are they doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Israel survey is here.

Financial forecasting startup Springbox AI launches its apps and raises $2M 21 Jan 2021, 6:03 am

Springbox AI, an AI-powered financial forecasting application designed to replace financial market investment service and aimed at the average financial markets trader, has launched on iOS and Android.

It’s been built by a team of founders who previously worked at Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, UBS, and BNP Paribas. It’s so far raised $2M in funding from private investors in Europe.

The app costs $49 a month, and includes a range of tools including market forecasting; live market screening of stocks, forex, and futures markets; and trading news.

Springbox AI Co-Founder Kassem Lahham said: “Most brokers focus their marketing by selling investors the dream or the myth of easy-money, resulting in 96% of self-traders losing money and quitting. Using Springbox AI traders will have access to an app that will help them succeed, focused on the data.”

Springbox competes with trading apps like eToro, but eToro focuses on social trading and following a strong investor from the community. Springbox is designed for slightly more sophisticated traders, say the founders.

Raspberry Pi Foundation launches $4 microcontroller with custom chip 21 Jan 2021, 5:11 am

Meet the Raspberry Pi Pico, a tiny little microcontroller that lets you build hardware projects with some code running on the microcontroller. Even more interesting, the Raspberry Pi Foundation is using its own RP2040 chip, which means that the foundation is now making its own silicon.

If you’re not familiar with microcontrollers, those devices let you control other parts or other devices. You might think that you can already do this kind of stuff with a regular Raspberry Pi. But microcontrollers are specifically designed to interact with other things.

They’re cheap, they’re small and they draw very little power. You can start developing your project with a breadboard to avoid soldering. You can pair it with a small battery and it can run for weeks or even months. Unlike computers, microcontrollers don’t run traditional operating systems. Your code runs directly on the chip.

Like other microcontrollers, the Raspberry Pi Pico has dozens of input and output pins on the sides of the device. Those pins are important as they act as the interface with other components. For instance, you can make your microcontroller interact with an LED light, get data from various sensors, show some information on a display, etc.

The Raspberry Pi Pico uses the RP2040 chip. It has a dual-core Arm processor (running at 133MHz), 264KB of RAM, 26 GPIO pins including 3 analog inputs, a micro-USB port and a temperature sensor. It doesn’t come with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. And it costs $4.

If you want to run something on the Raspberry Pi Pico, it’s quite easy. You plug your device to your computer using the micro-USB port. You boot up the Raspberry Pi Pico while pressing the button. The device will appear on your computer as an external drive.

In addition to C, you can use MicroPython as your development language. It’s a Python-inspired language for microcontrollers. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has written a ton of documentation and a datasheet for the Pico.

Interestingly, the Raspberry Pi Foundation wants to let others benefit from its own chip design. It has reached out to Adafruit, Arduino, Pimoroni and Sparkfun so that they can build their own boards using the RP2040 chip. There will be an entire ecosystem of RP2040-powered devices.

This is an interesting move for the Raspberry Pi Foundation as it can go down this path and iterate on its own chip design with more powerful variants. It provides two main advantages — the ability to control exactly what to put on board, and price.

Image Credits: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Porsche and Axel Springer increase investment into their APX accelerator to €55M 21 Jan 2021, 4:00 am

Berlin-based early-stage fund APX today announced that its two investors, European publisher Axel Springer and sports car maker Porsche, have increased their investment in the fund to a total of €55 million.

With this, APX, which launched in 2018, is now able to deploy up to €500,000 in pre-Series A seed funding per company. That’s up from up to €100,000 when the fund launched. So far, the group has invested in more than 70 companies and plans to increase this number to close to 200 by 2022.

When APX launched, the fund didn’t disclose the total investment from Porsche and Axel Springer. Today, the team said that the new investment “more than doubles APX’s total amount for investing in new and current companies.” APX also stressed that the total volume of the fund is now “at least” €55 million, in part because the investors can always allocate additional funding for outliers.

In addition to the new funding, APX also today announced that it is doing away with its 100-day accelerator program and instead opting for a long-term commitment to its companies, including participation in future rounds.

“We will try and invest into 50 or more companies this year — and we were at 35 last year. So this is quite some growth,” APX founding managing director (and folk music aficionado) Henric Hungerhoff told me. “We think that our deal flow systems and our entire operations are settled in well enough that we can have quality founders in our portfolio. That’s our goal — and that might even increase to 70 the year after. […] We see really nice synergies or network effects within our portfolio, with founders helping other founders and learning from each other.”

Image Credits: APX

Hungerhoff tells me that the team is quite confident in its ability now to identify quality deal flows. The team is using a data-driven approach. And while it leverages its own network and that of its founders, it has also set up a scout program at leading European universities to identify potential founders, for example.

As APX founding managing director, and the former CEO of Axel Springer’s Plug and Play accelerator, Jörg Rheinboldt noted, APX never asks its founders to pitch. Instead, the team has multiple conversations with them about the product they want to build, how they came up with the idea — and how it changed over time.

“And then, we do multiple things simultaneously,” Rheinboldt said. “One is, we look at team dynamics. How do the founders interact? We also stress them a little bit — in a friendly way — where someone asks very fast questions, or we focus a little bit on one person and see how the others rescue them. We want to know about the team dynamics and then we want to understand the strategy, how we can help them best?”

The idea here is to be able to invest quickly. In addition, though, with the new funding, the team isn’t just able to invest into more companies but also invest more into the individual companies.

Image Credits: APX

“We want to invest deeper per startup at a very early stage,” Hungerhoff said. “So far, […] our typical approach was a non-dilution, pro-rata follow-on strategy with most of our portfolio companies. And this is something we want to pledge in the future. Looking at the past, 100% of the times in equity rounds, we do the pro-rata follow-on or more, but now, we have developed a strategy that we will, for the fastest-moving of fastest-growing companies, we want to deploy significantly more cash in a very early phase, which means an amount of up to €500,000.”

What the team saw was that the companies in its portfolio would raise a small pre-seed round from APX and other investors, with APX typically taking a 5% stake in the startup. Most founders would then go on and raise extended pre-seed or seed rounds soon thereafter.

“We more felt like we missed out when we saw these companies raising really nice financing rounds and we did our investment,” Rheinbolt said. “We felt very good that we can do a pro-rata investment. but we looked at each other and said: we knew this, we knew that they would do this 12 weeks ago. We could have given them a check and maybe the round would have been done in eight weeks and maybe [our stake] wouldn’t be 5% but 7%.”

Given this new focus on supporting startups throughout their lifecycle, it’s no surprise that APX did away with the 100-day program as well. But the team still expects to be quite hands-on. With a growing network, though, the partners also expect that founders will be able to learn from each other, too. “We now see the value that is coming from this,” Hungerhoff said. For example, a team that we’ve invested in two months ago, they’re now thinking about the angel round. They can actually get the best advice on this — or just experienced sharing — from another team, rather than talking to Jörg who did this maybe 30 years ago — no offense.”

The team also spends a lot of time thinking about its community, which now includes founders from 20 countries. The COVID pandemic has obviously moved most of the interactions online. Before COVID, APX often hosted events in its offices, which helped create the kind of serendipity that often leads to new ideas and connections. Looking ahead, the team still believes that there is a lot of value in having face-to-face meetings, but at the same time, maybe not every company needs to move to Berlin and instead visit for a few days every now and then.

‘The money is still there,’ says APX managing director Jörg Rheinboldt

Bonus: Here is Hungerhoff’s latest album with St. Beaufort.

Softr scores $2.2M seed for its no-code website and web app platform powered by Airtable 21 Jan 2021, 4:00 am

No-code — software that lets you accomplish tasks that previously required coding skills — is an increasingly hot space, even if the basic premise has been promised and not fully realised for many years. Related to this are companies like Airtable, which attempt to make building relational databases and interrogating them as easy as creating a spreadsheet. Now Softr, a startup out of Berlin, wants to push the no-code concept further by making it easy to build websites on top of Airtable without the need to write code.

Recently soft launched on Product Hunt, today the young company is disclosing $2.2 million in seed funding, having previously been bootstrapped by its two Armenian founders, CEO Mariam Hakobyan and CTO Artur Mkrtchyan. Leading the round is Atlantic Labs, along with Philipp Moehring (Tiny.VC) and founders from GitHub, SumUp, Zeitgold, EyeEm and Rows.

Started in 2019, Softr has built a no-code platform to enable anybody to build websites and web apps based on data housed in Airtable. The idea is to let Airtable do the database grunt work, combined with Softr’s relatively flexible but template-driven approach to website and web app creation.

Softr’s Hakobyan explains that out of the box the startup offers templates for anything from a simple marketing website to web apps for an e-commerce store, job board, marketplace and more. Those applications can include functionality like user authentication, gated content, payments, upvoting, and commenting etc.

“Softr has zero learning curve and can literally be used by anyone without a tech background, as it abstracts away all the technical aspects and focuses the user on product building and content, rather than technology,” she explains. “Softr uses Airtable as the database, as it makes it easy creating and sharing relational databases, without having to learn SQL or scripting. Airtable has gotten pretty popular in the last few years and is used not only by individuals but also Fortune 500 companies”.

Image Credits: Softr

To that end, Hakobyan says Softr’s magic is that it uses the concept of “pre-built building blocks” (listings, user accounts, payments etc) and business logic to handle most of the heavy lifting on behalf of the website creator. “When using blocks and templates.. ., 70% of the work is already done for the user,” she explains.

In addition, Softr connects to popular services like Stripe, Paypal, Mailchimp, Zapier, Integromat, Hotjar, Google Analytics, Hubspot, Drift and others.

Softr is currently used by “several thousands of makers and startups”. Examples of applications that customers have built on Softr include a language learning school with membership, a baby-sitters booking marketplace, and a community with gated content and online courses.

Armed with capital, Softr plans to expand its customer base to non-tech functions of SMBs to help them build internal tooling, such as employee directories, product inventories, real estate listings etc., and to automate manual processes.

Eight Roads Ventures Europe appoints Lucile Cornet to Partner 21 Jan 2021, 3:01 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This startup says its AI can better spot a healthy embryo — and improve IVF success 21 Jan 2021, 12:57 am

With every year, AI is beginning to bring more standardized levels of diagnostic accuracy in medicine. This is true of skin cancer detection, for example, and lung cancers.

Now, a startup in Israel called Embryonics says its AI can improve the odds of successfully implanting a healthy embryo during in vitro fertilization. What the company has been developing, in essence, is an algorithm to predict embryo implantation probability, one they have trained through IVF time-lapsed imaging of developing embryos.

It’s just getting started, to be clear. So far, in a pilot involving 11 women ranging in age from 20 to 40, six of those individuals are enjoying successful pregnancies, and the other five are awaiting results, says Embryonics.

Still, Embryonics is interesting for its potential to shake up a big market that’s been stuck for decades and continues to grow only because of external trends, like millennial women who are putting off having children owing to economic concerns.

Consider that the global in-vitro fertilization market is expected to grow from roughly $18.3 billion in 2019 to nearly double that number in the next five years by some estimates. Yet the tens of thousands of women who undergo IVF each year have long faced costs of anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 per cycle (at least in the U.S.), along with long-shot odds that grow worse with age.

Indeed, it’s the prospect of reducing the number of IVF rounds and their attendant expenses that drives Embryonics, which was founded three years ago by CEO Yael Gold-Zamir, an M.D. who studied general surgery at Hebrew University, then became a researcher in an IVF laboratory owing to an abiding interest in the science behind fertility.

As it happens, she would be introduced to two individuals with complementary interests and expertise. One of them was David Silver, who had studied bioinformatics at the prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and who, before joining Embryonics last year, spent three years as a machine learning engineer at Apple and three years before that as an algorithm engineer at Intel.

The second individual to whom Gold-Zamir was introduced was Alex Bronstein, a serial founder who spent years as a principal engineer with Intel and who is today the head of the Center for Intelligent Systems at Technion, as well as involved with several efforts involving deep learning AI, including at Embryonics and at Sibylla AI, a nascent outfit focused on algorithmic trading in capital markets.

Embryonics currently remains a small outfit, but the three, along with 13 more full-time employees who’ve joined them, appear to be making progress.

Fueled in part by $4 million in seed funding led by the Shuctermann Family Investment Office (led by the former president of Soros Capital, Sender Cohen) and the Israeli Innovation Authority, Embryonics says it’s about to receive regulatory approval in Europe that will enable it to sell its software — which the team says can recognize patterns and interpret image in small cell clusters with greater accuracy than a human —  to fertility clinics across the continent.

Using a database with millions of (anonymized) patient records from different centers around the world that representing all races and geographies and ages, says Gold-Zamir, the company is already eyeing next steps, too.

Most notably, beyond moving into the U.S. with its embryo analysis software, Embryonics wants to work with fertility clinics on improving what’s called hormonal stimulation, so that their patients produce as many mature eggs as possible.

As Bronstein observes, every woman who goes through IVF or fertility preservation goes through an hormonal stimulation process — which involves getting injected with hormones from 8 to 14 days — to induce their ovaries to produce numerous eggs. But right now, there are just three general protocols and  a “lot of trial and error in trying to establish the right one,” he says. Through deep learning, Embryonics thinks it can begin to understand not just which hormones each individual should be taking but the different times they should be taken.

And there’s more in the works if all goes as planned. “Embryonics’s goal is to provide a holistic solution, covering all aspects of the process,” says Gold-Zamir, who is raising four children of her own, along with running the company.

It’s too soon to say whether the nascent outfit will succeed. But it certainly seems to be at the forefront of a technology that is fast changing after more than 40 years wherein many IVF clinics worldwide have simply assessed embryo health by looking at days-old embryos on a petri dish under a microscope to assess their cell multiplication and shape.

In the spring of 2019, for instance, investigators from Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City published own their conclusion  that AI can evaluate embryo morphology more accurately than the human eye after using 12,000 photos of human embryos taken precisely 110 hours after fertilization to train an algorithm to discriminate between poor and good embryo quality.

The investigators said that each embryo was first assigned a grade by embryologists that considered various aspects of the embryo’s appearance. The investigators then performed a statistical analysis to correlate the embryo grade with the probability of a successful pregnancy outcome. Embryos were considered good quality if the chances were greater than 58 percent and poor quality if the chances were below 35%.

After training and validation, the algorithm was able to classify the quality of a new set of images with 97% accuracy.

Photo Credit: Tammy Bar-Shay

Accounting automation startup Georges raises $42.4 million and rebrands to Indy 21 Jan 2021, 12:45 am

French startup Georges — or Georges.tech — is raising a new round of funding of $42.4 million (€35 million). The company is also getting a new name and will be called Indy going forward. The startup has been building an accounting automation application for freelancers and small companies.

Singular is leading today’s funding round. You might not be familiar with Singular, but it makes a ton of sense to see the VC firm on the cap table. Former Alven partners Jeremy Uzan and Raffi Kamber left the Paris-based VC firm to raise their own fund. Uzan previously invested in Indy when he was at Alven and he’s following up with Singular.

Existing investors Alven and Kerala are also investing once again. Overall, Indy has managed to attract 40,000 clients who pay a monthly subscription fee to access the service.

Indy first started with a product specifically designed for freelancers, self-employed people, doctors, architects, lawyers, etc. It can help you replace your accountant altogether. You first connect the service to your bank account. Indy then imports all your transactions and tries to tag and categorize as many transactions as possible.

You can go back and add missing data. You can also add receipts or invoices right next to your transactions. Once this is done, you know how much VAT you’re supposed to get back at the end of the year.

Indy then automatically fills out administrative forms based on your data. You can then download your tax documents or send them directly from Indy.

You can also use the platform to get an overview of your business. You can see your corporate revenue, track your expenses, and see how much you earn per year based on personal expenses and your own pay.

Over time, Indy has expanded its service so that it supports more types of companies. In addition to freelancers, Indy supports EURL, SARL, SAS and SASU. In 2020, the startup has tripled its revenue.

And the company plans to improve its product to support even more self-employed people, including people selling stuff under the BIC status in France. Indy plans to hire 100 people in 2021 in Lyon.

Indy has even bigger plans as it has been evaluating the U.S. as a potential market. There are a ton of self-employed people in the U.S. and that’s why it represents an interesting opportunity.

Georges raises $11.2 million for its accounting automation tool

Wireless charging tech developer Powermat pivots to industrial applications with Jetsons Robotics partnerhsip 21 Jan 2021, 12:12 am

When the two year-old Indian company Jetsons Robotics began searching for a partner to help design charging stations for their autonomous rooftop solar installation cleaning robots, the Israeli company Powermat was an obvious choice.

While the company had made its name as the designer for wireless charging technologies for consumer electronics, over the past two years the company was shifting its focus to more industrial applications. So it made sense to work with the Indian company on new form factors and applications for its charging technologies.

Indeed, the consumer market that Powermat had hoped to capture had been, by that point, broadly commoditized, so the tech developer needed a new direction.

Cleaning rooftop solar installations can be a costly endeavor, running companies anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per year, according to Jetsons Robotics chief executive, Jatin Sharma. The use of robots to replace human labor can save money, but the autonomous solution that the company wanted to build necessitated some kind of wireless charging dock, he said.

Contact-based charging meant too many variables in the outdoor environment, but an inductive charger would be too costly. Until the company worked with Powermat on a solution, Sharma said.

Backed by 100x.vc, Sharma’s robots are already cleaning roughly 1.7 megawatts of solar installations on a daily basis.

For Powermat, the solar cleaning robots are a good test of the company’s new industrial focus, according to chief technology officer Itay Sherman.

“You can look at it like maturation of the market,” Sherman said. “Powermat had been a pioneer in driving wireless technology. This market is maturing and we are moving on to markets where the technology and innovation is important. We have decided to shift our efforts to these emerging markets. Robotics is one, medical devices, IOT, and the automotive market are others.”

 

Digital securities platform iSTOX closes $50 million Series A to make private equity accessible to more investors 20 Jan 2021, 10:16 pm

Oi Yee Choo, chief commercial officer of digital securities platform iSTOX

Oi Yee Choo, chief commercial officer of digital securities platform iSTOX

iSTOX, a digital securities platform that wants to make private equity investment more accessible, has added new investors from Japan to its Series A round, bringing its total to $50 million. Two of its new backers are the government-owned Development Bank of Japan and JIC Venture Growth Investments, the venture capital arm of Japan Investment Corporation, a state-backed investment fund.

Other participants included Juroku Bank and Mobile Internet Capital, along with returning investors Singapore Exchange, Tokai Tokyo Financial Holdings and Hanwha Asset Management.

Founded in 2017 and owned by blockchain infrastructure firm ICHX, iSTOX’s goal is to open private capital opportunities, including startups, hedge funds and private debt, that are usually limited to a small group of high-net-worth individuals to more institutional and accredited investors. (It also serves accredited investors outside of Singapore, as long as they meet the country’s standards by holding the equivalent amount in assets and income.) iSTOX’s allows users to make investments as small as SGD $100 (about USD $75.50) and says it is able to keep fees low by using blockchain technology for smart contracts and to hold digital securities, which makes the issuance process more effective and less costly.

iSTOX’s Series A round was first announced in September 2019, when the company said it had raised an undisclosed amount from Thai investment bank Kiatnakin Phatra Financial Group while participating in the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) FinTech Regulatory Sandbox. The Singaporean government has been especially supportive of blockchain technology, launching initiatives to commercialize its use in fintech, data security, logistics and other sectors.

Singapore’s government launches blockchain innovation program with $8.9 million in funding

iSTOX completed the sandbox program in February 2020, and was approved by the MAS for the issuance, custody and trading of digitized securities. The new funding will be used for geographical expansion, including in China, where it already has an agreement in the city of Chongqing, and Europe and and Australia, where it is currently working on issuance deals. iSTOX also plans to add new investment products, including private issuances that investors can subscribe to in “bite-size portions.”

In a press statement, iSTOX chief commercial officer Oi Yee Choo said, “Capital markets are transforming rapidly because of advancements in technology. The regulator MAS and our institutional investors have been far-sighted and progressive, and they support the change wholeheartedly.”

The company is among several Asia-based fintech platforms that want to democratize the process of investing. For retail investors, there are apps like Bibit, Syfe, Stashaway, Kristal.ai and Grab Financial’s investment products.

Since iSTOX works with accredited and institutional investors, however, its most direct competitors include the recently-launched DBS Digital Exchange, which is also based in Singapore. iSTOX’s advantage is that it offers more kinds of assets. Right now, it facilitates the issuance of funds and bonds, but this year, it will start issuing private equity and structured products as well. The company’s securities are also fully digitized, which means they are created on the blockchain, instead of being recorded on the blockchain after they are issued, which means iSTOX is able to offer faster settlement times.

Indonesian robo-advisor app Bibit raises $30 million led by Sequoia Capital India

Indian stock exchanges approve $3.4B Reliance and Future deal in setback for Amazon 20 Jan 2021, 8:19 pm

Indian stock exchanges approved the $3.4 billion deal between retail giants Reliance Retail and Future Group on late Wednesday in yet another setback for Amazon, which has invested over $6.5 billion in the world’s second largest internet market and sought to block the aforementioned deal.

The Bombay Stock Exchange said in a notification that it had spoken with India’s markets regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), and had no objection or adverse observation on the deal.

Wednesday’s notification is the latest setback for Amazon, which had written to SEBI and Indian antitrust watchdog to block the multi-billion deal between Future Group and Reliance Retail, the two largest retail chains in India. Last year, India’s antitrust group gave a go ahead to the deal to the Indian firms.

“We hereby advise that we have no adverse observations with limited reference to those matters having a bearing on listing/de-listing/continuous listing requirements within the provisions of Listing Agreement, so as to enable the company to file the scheme with Hon’ble NCLT [National Company Law Tribunal],” the notification read. SEBI has advised Future to share various aspects of its ongoing litigation with Amazon to NCLT, whose approval for the deal is pending.

Amazon bought 49% stake in one of Future’s unlisted firms in 2019 in a deal that was valued at over $100 million. As part of the deal, Future could not have sold assets to rivals, Amazon has said in court filings.

Things changed last year after the coronavirus pandemic starved the Indian firm of cash, Future Group chief executive and founder Kishore Biyani said at a recent virtual conference. In August, Future Group said that it had reached an agreement with Ambani’s Reliance Industries, which runs India’s largest retail chain, to sell its retail, wholesale, logistics and warehousing businesses for $3.4 billion.

Amazon later protested the deal by reaching an arbitrator in Singapore and asked the court to block the deal between the Indian retail giants. Amazon secured emergency relief from the arbitration court in Singapore in late October that temporarily halted Future Group from going ahead with the sale.

The two estranged partners also fought at the Delhi High Court last year, which in a rare glimmer of hope for the American giant rejected Future’s plea for an ad-interim injunction to restrain Amazon from writing to regulators and other authorities to raise concerns over — and halt — the deal between the two Indian giants.

An Amazon spokesperson told TechCrunch that the firm will continue to pursue legal remedies. “The letters issued by BSE & NSE clearly state that the comments of SEBI on the ‘draft scheme of arrangement’ (proposed transaction) are subject to the outcome of the ongoing Arbitration and any other legal proceedings. We will continue to pursue our legal remedies to enforce our rights,” the spokesperson said.

At stake is India’s retail market that is estimated to balloon to $1.3 trillion by 2025, up from $700 billion in 2019, according to consultancy firm BCG and local trade group Retailers’ Association India. Online shopping accounts for about 3% of all retail in India.

Genflow nabs $11M investment from BGF 20 Jan 2021, 7:01 pm

Genflow, a London and LA-based brand-building agency that offers an e-commerce and mobile tech platform to let influencers start companies, has raised $11 million in funding.

Leading the round is U.K. investor BGF. The injection of capital will be used by Genflow to further scale its offering and for international expansion.

Founded in 2016 by entrepreneur Shan Hanif to help social media influencers develop their brands and extract revenue from their audiences, Genflow combines aspects of a traditional branding agency — such as strategy, design and planning — and a tech company with its own software stack.

This sees Genflow position itself as a brand-as-a-service (BaaS) platform, which helps influencers develop their own digital and physical products instead of promoting other brands, and enables them to launch their own membership club, gated community, mobile app or direct to consumer brand.

“Genflow offers the complete infrastructure from design, development, manufacturing and logistics through to strategy, marketing and content creation to drive revenue and profit,” explains the company.

Out of the box influencer strategies to accelerate awareness for your startup

Genflow says its client base are established influencers who typically have large followings on Instagram and YouTube.

“Genflow allows an influencer to start their own business instead of the traditional brand deals so if someone with an audience wants truly their own audience and business Genflow does that for them,” says Hanif. “We provide them the complete infrastructure to launch a business: design, manufacturing, development, content, strategy and marketing all in one place. This gives us the unique ability to execute to a very high level that drives revenue”.

Hanif says influencers typically approach Genflow either with an idea or when they need help figuring out what brand they can launch. “We use ‘Genlytics,’ our in-house built software, to see what the best brand they can release by checking their analytics, breakdown of their followers, what brands they have worked with in the past and to see how much they can potentially sell,” he explains.

Next, Genflow onboards the client and begins the brand building process, offering broadly two options: Gated content, membership clubs, community and mobile apps, or developing direct to consumer brand with physical products.

The first is akin to having your own OnlyFans, Patreon or social media platform. The second is a classic D2C e-commerce play and includes designing the products, and working with factories to create samples, manufacture the products and then handle all logistics etc.

In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 followers

“In both cases then we plan the launch of the brand, the marketing strategy and then work with the influencer to launch the brand itself,” adds Hanif.

“What’s interesting is that traditionally in startups you find a problem, get a team, some funding then try to find customers. What we have invented is the ‘audience first approach’ where we already have the audience and now just need the right products and it’s instantly a success. The metrics that I see for our brands are not normal: conversion rates that are 5-30%, 20% repeat purchase buys and around 6:1 return on Facebook ads.

“We are proud that every brand we have launched to date is profitable and growing year on year so we know our approach works.”

 

Daily Crunch: Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski 20 Jan 2021, 6:39 pm

On his way out the door, President Donald Trump pardons a former Googler, Jack Ma reappears and Wattpad gets acquired. This is your Daily Crunch for January 20, 2021.

The big story: Trump pardons Anthony Levandowski

Although Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States as I write this, he still held the role on Tuesday evening, when he included former Googler Anthony Levandowski (who had been sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets) in his final set of 73 pardons. The pardon had been supported by Founders Fund’s Peter Thiel and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, among others.

Today, of course, Joe Biden was inaugurated, prompting immediate changes to the White House website. And Amazon wasted no time offering the new president help with rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines.

Also, we have a piece from former White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina about the relationship between the Biden administration and Silicon Valley.

The tech giants

Alibaba shares jump on Jack Ma’s first appearance in 3 months — Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video call.

Valve and five PC games publishers fined $9.4M for illegal geo-blocking — In addition to Valve, the five sanctioned games publishers are: Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video — The feature is currently only available to select creators who have opted into the test.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Wattpad, the storytelling platform, is selling to South Korea’s Naver for $600M — Naver plans to incorporate at least part of the business into another of its holdings, the publishing platform Webtoon.

SpaceX delivers 60 more Starlink satellites in first launch of 2021, and sets new Falcon 9 rocket reusability record — This puts the total Starlink constellation size at almost 1,000.

Landbot closes $8M Series A for its ‘no code’ chatbot builder — The startup has grown to around 2,200 paying customers.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Fintech startups and unicorns had a stellar Q4 2020 — The fourth quarter of 2020 was as busy as you imagined.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes? — The latest edition of Dear Sophie, the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

Hello, Extra Crunch community! — Tell us what else you want from Extra Crunch.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

MIT develops method for lab-grown plants that eventually lead to alternatives to forestry and farming — The process would be able to produce wood and fibre in a lab environment.

Reflections on the first all-virtual CES — We’ve long questioned whether in-person trade shows are a thing of the past. This year, we put it to the test.

Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost — A new study examines tentative carbon costs on the connectivity and data infrastructure that make working from home possible.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

Curtsy, a clothing resale app aimed at Gen Z women, raises $11 million Series A 20 Jan 2021, 4:39 pm

Curtsy, a clothing resale app and competitor to recently IPO’d Poshmark, announced today it has raised $11 million in Series A funding for its startup focused on the Gen Z market. The app, which evolved out of an earlier effort for renting dresses, now allows women to list their clothes, shoes and accessories for resale, while also reducing many of the frictions involved with the typical resale process.

The new round was led by Index Ventures, and included participation from Y Combinator, prior investors FJ Labs and 1984 Ventures, and angel investor Josh Breinlinger (who left Jackson Square Ventures to start his own fund).

To date, Curtsy has raised $14.5 million, including over two prior rounds, which also included investors CRV, SV Angel, Kevin Durant, Priscilla Scala and other angels.

Like other online clothing resale businesses, Curtsy aims to address the needs of a younger generation of consumers who are looking for a more sustainable alternative when shopping for clothing. Instead of constantly buying new, many Gen Z consumers will rotate their wardrobes over time, often by leveraging resale apps.

Image Credits: Curtsy

However, the current process for listing your own clothes on resale apps can be time-consuming. A recent report by Wired, for example, detailed how many women were spinning their wheels engaging with Poshmark in the hopes of making money from their closets, to little avail. The Poshmark sellers complained they had to do more than just list, sell, package and ship their items — they also had to participate in the community in order to have their items discovered.

Curtsy has an entirely different take. It wants to make it easier and faster for casual sellers to list items by reducing the amount of work involved to sell. It also doesn’t matter how many followers a seller has, which makes its marketplace more welcoming to first-time sellers.

“The big gap in the market is really for casual sellers — people who are not interested in selling professionally,” explains Curtsy CEO David Oates. “In pretty much every other app that you’ve heard about, pro sellers really crowd out everyday women. Part of that is the friction of the whole process,” he says.

Peer-to-peer dress rental startup Curtsy lets you rent out your wardrobe

On Curtsy, the listing process is far more streamlined.

The app uses a combination of machine learning and human review to help the sellers merchandise their items, which increase their chances of selling. When sellers first list their item in the app, Curtsy will recommend a price, then fill in details like the brand, category, subcategory, shipping weight and the suggested selling price, using machine learning systems training on the previous items sold on its marketplace. Human review fixes any errors in that process.

Also before items are posted, Curtsy improves and crops the images, as well as fixes any other issues with the listing, and moderates listings for spam. This process helps to standardize the listings on the app across all sellers, giving everyone a fair shot at having their items discovered and purchased.

Another unique feature is how Curtsy caters to the Gen Z to young Millennial user base (ages 15-30), who are often without shipping supplies or even a printer for producing a shipping label.

Image Credit: Curtsy / Photo credit: Brooke Ray

First-time sellers receive a free starter kit with Curtsy-branded supplies for packaging their items at home, like poly mailers in multiple sizes. As they need more supplies, the cost of those is built into the selling flow, so you don’t have to explicitly pay for it — it’s just deducted from your earnings. Curtsy also helps sellers to schedule a free USPS pickup to save a trip to the post office, and it will even send sellers a shipping label, if need be.

“One of the things we realized quickly is Gen Z does not really have printers. So we actually have a label service and we’ll send you the label in the mail for free from centers across the country,” says Oates.

Later, when a buyer of an item purchased from Curtsy is ready to resell it, they can do so with one tap — they don’t have to photograph it and describe it again. This also speeds up the selling process.

Poshmark is pushing into the public market at a high-end valuation as the resale market sizzles

Overall, the use of technology, outsourced teams who improve listings and extra features like supplies and labels can be expensive. But Curtsy believes the end result is that they can bring more casual sellers to the resale market.

“Whatever costs we have, they should be in service of increased liquidity, so we can grow faster and add more people,” Oates says. “In case of the label service, those are people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate in selling online. There’s no other app that would allow them to sell without a printer.”

Image Credits: Curtsy

This system, so far, appears to be working. Curtsy now has several hundred thousand people who buy and sell on its iOS-only app, with an average transaction rates of three items bought or sold per month. When the new round closed late in 2020, the company was reporting a $25 million GMV revenue run rate, and average monthly growth of around 30%. Today, Curtsy generates revenue by taking a 20% commission on sales (or $3 for items under $15).

The team, until recently, was only five people — including co-founders David Oates, William Ault, Clara Agnes Ault and Eli Allen, plus a contract workforce. With the Series A, Curtsy will be expanding, specifically by investing in new roles within product and marketing to help it scale. It will also be focused on developing an Android version of its app in the first quarter of 2021 and further building out its web presence.

“Never before have we seen such a strong overlap between buyers and sellers on a consumer-to-consumer marketplace,” said Damir Becirovic of Index Ventures, about the firm’s investment. “We believe the incredible love for Curtsy is indicative of a large marketplace in the making,” he added.

African edtech startup uLesson lands a $7.5 million Series A 20 Jan 2021, 4:11 pm

ULesson, an edtech startup based in Nigeria that sells digital curriculum to students through SD cards, has raised $7.5 million in Series A funding. The round is led by Owl Ventures, which closed over half a billion in new fund money just months ago. Other participants include LocalGlobe and existing investors, including TLcom Capital and Founder Collective.

The financing comes a little over a year since uLesson closed its $3.1 million seed round in November 2019. The startup’s biggest difference between now and then isn’t simply the millions it has in the bank, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its entire value proposition.

ULesson launched into the market just weeks before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic. The startup, which uses SD cards as a low-bandwidth way to deliver content, saw a wave of smart devices enter homes across Africa as students adapted to remote education.

“The ground became wet in a way we didn’t see before,” founder and CEO Sim Shagaya said. “It opens up the world for us to do all kinds of really amazing things we’ve wanted to do in the world of edtech that you can’t do in a strictly offline sense,” the founder added.

Similar to many edtech startups, uLesson has benefited from the overnight adoption of remote education. Its positioning as a supplementary education tool helped it surface 70% month over month growth, said Shagaya. The founder says that the digital infrastructure gains will allow them to “go online entirely by Q2 this year.”

Sim Shagaya’s uLesson African edtech startup raises $3.1M

It costs an annual fee of $50, and the app has been downloaded more than 1 million times.

With fresh demand, Shagaya sees uLesson evolving into a live, online platform instead of an offline, asynchronous content play. The startup is already experimenting with live tutoring: it tested a feature that allowed students to ask questions while going through pre-recorded material. The startup got more than 3,000 questions each day, with demand so high they had to pause the test feature.

“We want you to be able to push a button and get immediate support from a college student sitting somewhere in the continent who is basically a master in what you’re studying,” he said. The trend of content-focused startups adding on a live tutoring layer continues when you look at Chegg, Quizlet, Brainly and others.

The broader landscape

E-learning startups have been booming in the wake of the coronavirus. It’s led to an influx of tutoring marketplaces and content that promises to serve students. One of the most valuable startups in edtech is Byju’s, which offers online learning services and prepares students for tests.

But Shagaya doesn’t think any competitors, even Byju’s, have cracked the nut on how to do so in a digital way for African markets. There are placement agencies in South Africa and Kenya and offline tutoring marketplaces that send people to student homes, but no clear leader from a digital curriculum perspective.

Owl Ventures’ new pair of funds gives edtech a $585 million boost

“Everybody sees that Africa is a big opportunity,” Shagaya said. “But everybody also sees that you need a local team to execute on this.”

Shagaya thinks the opportunity in African edtech is huge because of two reasons: a young population, and a deep penetration of private school-going students. Combined, those facts could create troves of students who have the cash and are willing to pay for supplementary education.

The biggest hurdle ahead for uLesson, and any edtech startup that benefitted from pandemic gains, is distribution and outcomes. ULesson didn’t share any data on effectiveness and outcomes, but says it’s in the process of conducting a study with the University of Georgia to track mastery.

“Content efforts and products [will] live or die at the altar of distribution,” Shagaya said. The founder noted that in India, for example, pre-recorded videos do well due to social nuances and culture. ULesson is trying to find the perfect sauce for videos in markets around Africa and embed that into the product.

Amazon offers Biden resources for COVID-19 vaccine rollout 20 Jan 2021, 3:01 pm

Following Joseph Biden’s swearing in as the 46th president of the United States, Amazon is offering help in the administration’s stated goals for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine. In a letter provided to TechCrunch, Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark congratulates Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, while promising, “to assist you in reaching your goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of your administration.”

The note references a pledge set by Biden while introducing members of the pandemic team during a press conference in December of last year.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus. I can’t promise that,” the then-president-elect said. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly, it’s going to take some time. But I’m absolutely convinced that in 100 days we can change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better.”

More recently, COVID-19 task force member epidemiologist Michael Osterholm called the goal “aspirational […] but doable,” adding that it would take time to ramp up.

In his letter, Clark details Amazon’s response to the virus, as many warehouse and other workers were employed throughout as essential workers. Included in the resources on offer are deals with healthcare providers who can administer vaccines on-site.

“We have an agreement in place with a licensed third-party occupational health care provider to administer vaccines on-site at our Amazon facilities,” Clark writes. “We are prepared to move quickly once vaccines are available. Additionally, we are prepared to leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist your administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”

White House, dark mode: Biden admin refreshes presidency’s website, vows accessibility

 

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes? 20 Jan 2021, 2:35 pm

Sophie Alcorn Contributor
Sophie Alcorn is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.” She connects people with the businesses and opportunities that expand their lives.

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

Extra Crunch members receive access to weekly “Dear Sophie” columns; use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one- or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Dear Free:

Today is a historic day. The pace of change is accelerating now, especially in Washington. At the time of this writing, Biden is expected to imminently launch a new legislative proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. As the world sits back and watches, we are focusing great collective attention on upgrading our political, sociological and technological structures so that each human has the chance to succeed.

One of the things I adore about my practice of supporting international professionals with U.S. immigration is bearing witness to the process of individual transformation; it is an honor to support people in their personal journey from living in a world of effects to becoming the cause.

The immediate focus of the proposed legislation is centered around a solution for Dreamers (who are in the U.S. without documentation) as well as supporting the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers and children. For more of my recent thoughts on this topic, check out my recent podcast explaining many of the changes. The draft bill is expected to span hundreds of pages, so please follow this Dear Sophie column for more updates as I track and explore the details, especially related to tech immigration.

Innovation will be supported by many new immigration opportunities coming into greater focus. Biden’s campaign platform celebrated how “Immigrants are essential to the strength of our country and the U.S. economy.” The Biden team has prioritized immigration as a key focus within COVID, with an immediate goal of rewriting most Trump-era rules. For context, Trump issued more than 400 immigration-related executive orders and proclamations during his term.

H-1Bs: Although H-1Bs have been in the news a lot regarding new wage rules changing the order of the lottery and litigation, the lottery is still happening this spring, and if you want to sponsor candidates, the time to act is now, regardless of what is happening in Washington. If your company is planning on sponsoring individuals for an H-1B visa — whether they’re already living in the U.S. or are living abroad — I suggest that you continue to prepare for the upcoming H-1B registration period.

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