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TechCrunch’s Top 10 investigative reports from 2019

17:30 | 19 January

Facebook spying on teens, Twitter accounts hijacked by terrorists, and sexual abuse imagery found on Bing and Giphy were amongst the ugly truths revealed by TechCrunch’s investigating reporting in 2019. The tech industry needs more watchdogs than ever as its size enlargens the impact of safety failures and the abuse of power. Whether through malice, naivety, or greed, there was plenty of wrongdoing to sniff out.

Led by our security expert Zack Whittaker, TechCrunch undertook more long-form investigations this year to tackle these growing issues. Our coverage of fundraises, product launches, and glamorous exits only tell half the story. As perhaps the biggest and longest running news outlet dedicated to startups (and the giants they become), we’re responsible for keeping these companies honest and pushing for a more ethical and transparent approach to technology.

If you have a tip potentially worthy of an investigation, contact TechCrunch at tips@techcrunch.com or by using our anonymous tip line’s form.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Here are our top 10 investigations from 2019, and their impact:

Facebook pays teens to spy on their data

Josh Constine’s landmark investigation discovered that Facebook was paying teens and adults $20 in gift cards per month to install a VPN that sent Facebook all their sensitive mobile data for market research purposes. The laundry list of problems with Facebook Research included not informing 187,000 users the data would go to Facebook until they signed up for “Project Atlas”, not receiving proper parental consent for over 4300 minors, and threatening legal action if a user spoke publicly about the program. The program also abused Apple’s enterprise certificate program designed only for distribution of employee-only apps within companies to avoid the App Store review process.

The fallout was enormous. Lawmakers wrote angry letters to Facebook. TechCrunch soon discovered a similar market research program from Google called Screenwise Meter that the company promptly shut down. Apple punished both Google and Facebook by shutting down all their employee-only apps for a day, causing office disruptions since Facebookers couldn’t access their shuttle schedule or lunch menu. Facebook tried to claim the program was above board, but finally succumbed to the backlash and shut down Facebook Research and all paid data collection programs for users under 18. Most importantly, the investigation led Facebook to shut down its Onavo app, which offered a VPN but in reality sucked in tons of mobile usage data to figure out which competitors to copy. Onavo helped Facebook realize it should acquire messaging rival WhatsApp for $19 billion, and it’s now at the center of anti-trust investigations into the company. TechCrunch’s reporting weakened Facebook’s exploitative market surveillance, pitted tech’s giants against each other, and raised the bar for transparency and ethics in data collection.

Protecting The WannaCry Kill Switch

Zack Whittaker’s profile of the heroes who helped save the internet from the fast-spreading WannaCry ransomware reveals the precarious nature of cybersecurity. The gripping tale documenting Marcus Hutchins’ benevolent work establishing the WannaCry kill switch may have contributed to a judge’s decision to sentence him to just one year of supervised release instead of 10 years in prison for an unrelated charge of creating malware as a teenager.

The dangers of Elon Musk’s tunnel

TechCrunch contributor Mark Harris’ investigation discovered inadequate emergency exits and more problems with Elon Musk’s plan for his Boring Company to build a Washington D.C.-to-Baltimore tunnel. Consulting fire safety and tunnel engineering experts, Harris build a strong case for why state and local governments should be suspicious of technology disrupters cutting corners in public infrastructure.

Bing image search is full of child abuse

Josh Constine’s investigation exposed how Bing’s image search results both showed child sexual abuse imagery, but also suggested search terms to innocent users that would surface this illegal material. A tip led Constine to commission a report by anti-abuse startup AntiToxin (now L1ght), forcing Microsoft to commit to UK regulators that it would make significant changes to stop this from happening. However, a follow-up investigation by the New York Times citing TechCrunch’s report revealed Bing had made little progress.

Expelled despite exculpatory data

Zack Whittaker’s investigation surfaced contradictory evidence in a case of alleged grade tampering by Tufts student Tiffany Filler who was questionably expelled. The article casts significant doubt on the accusations, and that could help the student get a fair shot at future academic or professional endeavors.

Burned by an educational laptop

Natasha Lomas’ chronicle of troubles at educational computer hardware startup pi-top, including a device malfunction that injured a U.S. student. An internal email revealed the student had suffered a “a very nasty finger burn” from a pi-top 3 laptop designed to be disassembled. Reliability issues swelled and layoffs ensued. The report highlights how startups operating in the physical world, especially around sensitive populations like students, must make safety a top priority.

Giphy fails to block child abuse imagery

Sarah Perez and Zack Whittaker teamed up with child protection startup L1ght to expose Giphy’s negligence in blocking sexual abuse imagery. The report revealed how criminals used the site to share illegal imagery, which was then accidentally indexed by search engines. TechCrunch’s investigation demonstrated that it’s not just public tech giants who need to be more vigilant about their content.

Airbnb’s weakness on anti-discrimination

Megan Rose Dickey explored a botched case of discrimination policy enforcement by Airbnb when a blind and deaf traveler’s reservation was cancelled because they have a guide dog. Airbnb tried to just “educate” the host who was accused of discrimination instead of levying any real punishment until Dickey’s reporting pushed it to suspend them for a month. The investigation reveals the lengths Airbnb goes to in order to protect its money-generating hosts, and how policy problems could mar its IPO.

Expired emails let terrorists tweet propaganda

Zack Whittaker discovered that Islamic State propaganda was being spread through hijacked Twitter accounts. His investigation revealed that if the email address associated with a Twitter account expired, attackers could re-register it to gain access and then receive password resets sent from Twitter. The article revealed the savvy but not necessarily sophisticated ways terrorist groups are exploiting big tech’s security shortcomings, and identified a dangerous loophole for all sites to close.

Porn & gambling apps slip past Apple

Josh Constine found dozens of pornography and real-money gambling apps had broken Apple’s rules but avoided App Store review by abusing its enterprise certificate program — many based in China. The report revealed the weak and easily defrauded requirements to receive an enterprise certificate. Seven months later, Apple revealed a spike in porn and gambling app takedown requests from China. The investigation could push Apple to tighten its enterprise certificate policies, and proved the company has plenty of its own problems to handle despite CEO Tim Cook’s frequent jabs at the policies of other tech giants.

Bonus: HQ Trivia employees fired for trying to remove CEO

This Game Of Thrones-worthy tale was too intriguing to leave out, even if the impact was more of a warning to all startup executives. Josh Constine’s look inside gaming startup HQ Trivia revealed a saga of employee revolt in response to its CEO’s ineptitude and inaction as the company nose-dived. Employees who organized a petition to the board to remove the CEO were fired, leading to further talent departures and stagnation. The investigation served to remind startup executives that they are responsible to their employees, who can exert power through collective action or their exodus.

If you have a tip for Josh Constine, you can reach him via encrypted Signal or text at (585)750-5674, joshc at TechCrunch dot com, or through Twitter DMs

 


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Bolt raises €50M in venture debt from the EU to expand its ride-hailing business

14:30 | 16 January

Bolt, the billion-dollar startup out of Estonia that’s building a ride-hailing, scooter and food delivery business across Europe and Africa, has picked up a tranche of funding in its bid to take on Uber and the rest in the world of on-demand transportation.

The company has picked up €50 million (about $56 million) from the European Investment Bank to continue developing its technology and safety features, as well as to expand newer areas of its business such as food delivery and personal transport like e-scooters.

With this latest money, Bolt has raised over €250 million in funding since opening for business in 2013 and as of its last equity round in July 2019 (when it raised $67 million), it was valued at over $1 billion, which Bolt has confirmed to me remains the valuation here.

Bolt further said that its service now has over 30 million users in 150 cities and 35 countries and is profitable in two-thirds of its markets.

“Bolt is a good example of European excellence in tech and innovation. As you say, to stand still is to go backwards, and Bolt is never standing still,” said The EIB’s Vice President Alexander Stubb in a statement. “The Bank is very happy to support the company in improving its services, as well as allowing it to branch out into new service fields. In other words, we’re fully on board!”

The EIB is the non-profit, long-term lending arm of the European Union, and this financing in the form of a quasi-equity facility.

Also known as venture debt, the financing is structured as a loan, where repayment terms are based on a percentage of future revenue streams, and ownership is not diluted. The funding is backed in turn by the European Fund for Strategic Investments, as part of a bigger strategy to boost promising companies, and specifically riskier startups, in the tech industry. It expects to make and spur some €458.8 billion in investments across 1 million startups and SMEs.

Opting for “quasi-equity” loan instead of a straight equity or debt investment is attractive to Bolt for a couple of reasons. One is fact that the funding comes without ownership dilution is one attractive factor of the funding. Two is the endorsement and support of the EU itself, in a market category where tech disruptors have been known to run afoul of regulators and lawmakers, in part because of the ubiquity and nature of the transportation/mobility industry.

“Mobility is one of the areas where Europe will really benefit from a local champion who shares the values of European consumers and regulators,” said Martin Villig, the co-founder and CEO of Bolt, in a statement. :Therefore, we are thrilled to have the European Investment Bank join the ranks of Bolt’s backers as this enables us to move faster towards serving many more people in Europe.”

(Butting heads with authorities is something that Bolt is no stranger to: it tried to enter the lucrative London taxi market through a backdoor to bypass the waiting time to get a license. It really didn’t work, and the company had to wait another 21 months to come to London doing it by the book. In its first six months of operation in London, the company has picked up 1.5 million customers.)

While private VCs account for the majority of startup funding, backing from government groups is an interesting and strategic route for tech companies that are making waves in large industries that sit adjacent to technology. Before it was acquired by PayPal, IZettle also picked up a round from funding from the EIB specifically to invest in its AI R&D. Navya, the self-driving bus and shuttle startup, has also raised money from the EIB in the past.

One of the big issues with on-demand transportation companies has been its safety record — indeed, this is at the center of Uber’s latest scuffle in Europe, where London’s transport regulator has rejected a license renewal for the company over concerns about Uber’s safety record. (Uber is appealing and while it does, it’s business as usual. )

So it’s no surprise that with this funding, Bolt says that it will be specifically using the money to develop technology to “improve the safety, reliability and sustainability of its services while maintaining the high efficiency of the company’s operations.”

Bolt is one of a group of companies that have been hatched out of Estonia, which has worked to position itself as a leader in Europe’s tech industry as part of its own economic regeneration in the decades after existing as part of the Soviet Union (it formally left in 1990). The EIB has invested around €830 million in Estonian projects in the last five years.

“Estonia is as the forefront of digital transformation in Europe,” said Paolo Gentiloni, European Commissioner for the Economy, in a statement. “I am proud that Europe, through the Investment Plan, supports Estonian platform Bolt’s research and development strategy to create innovative and safe services that will enhance urban mobility.”

 


0

Hyundai to build air taxis for Uber’s future aerial ride share network

02:20 | 7 January

Hyundai Motor is partnering with Uber to develop and potentially mass produce air taxis for a future aerial ride share network.

The partnership is the latest addition to Uber Elevate’s growing network that includes Aurora Flight Sciences, which is now a subsidiary of Boeing, Bell, Embraer, Joby Aviation, Pipistrel Aircraft, Karem Aircraft and Jaunt Air Mobility. Uber has also entered into a real estate partnerships with Hillwood Properties, Related, Macquire, Oaktree and Signature

Uber Elevate has previously said it plans to start flight demonstrations in 2020 and have commercially available to riders in 2023.

Hyundai made the announcement Monday at a press conference ahead of CES 2020, the annual tech trade show in Las Vegas. The automaker also unveiled a four-seater aircraft concept called SA-1, which was created in part through Uber’s open design process.

Under the partnership, Hyundai will produce and deploy the air vehicles, and Uber will provide airspace support services, connections to ground transportation and customer interfaces through an aerial ride share network. Both parties are collaborating on infrastructure concepts to support take-off and landing for this new class of vehicles, the companies said in a joint release.

“Hyundai is our first vehicle partner with experience of manufacturing passenger cars on a global scale,” said Eric Allison, head of Uber Elevate. “We believe Hyundai has the potential to build Uber Air vehicles at rates unseen in the current aerospace industry, producing high quality, reliable aircraft at high volumes to drive down passenger costs per trip.”

Hyundai’s model unveiled at CES is designed to cruise at speeds up to 180 miles per hour and at an altitude of 1,000 to 2,000 feet above ground, and a flying range of up to 60 miles. The concept vehicle will be all-electric, using distributed electric propulsion, powered by multiple rotors and propellers around the airframe.

Hyundai says the design, which uses smaller rotors, will be quieter than large rotor helicopters. The vehicle will require a human driver, or pilot, but the company claims it will become autonomous.

 


0

Startups Weekly: Oyo’s toxicity + A farewell

16:00 | 4 January

Welcome back to Startups Weekly, a weekend newsletter that dives into the week’s noteworthy startups and venture capital news. Before I jump into today’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week I wrote about the startups we lost in 2019. Before that, I noted the defining moments of VC in 2019.

Unfortunately, this will be my last newsletter, as

for a new opportunity. Don’t worry, Startups Weekly isn’t going anywhere. We’ll have a new writer taking over the weekly update soon enough; in the meantime, TechCrunch editor Henry Pickavet will be at the helm. You can still get in touch with me on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

If you’re new here, you can subscribe to Startups Weekly here. Lots of good content will be coming your way in 2020.


India’s WeWork?

TechCrunch reporter Manish Singh penned an interesting piece on the state of Indian startups this week: As Indian startups raise record capital, losses are widening (Extra Crunch membership required). In it, he claims the financial performance of India’s largest startups are cause for concern. Gems like Flipkart, BigBasket and Paytm have lost a collective $3 billion in the last year.

“What is especially troublesome for startups is that there is no clear path for how they would ever generate big profits,” he writes. “Silicon Valley companies, for instance, have entered and expanded into India in recent years, investing billions of dollars in local operations, but yet, India has yet to make any substantial contribution to their bottom lines. If that wasn’t challenging enough, many Indian startups compete directly with Silicon Valley giants, which while impressive, is an expensive endeavor.”

Manish’s story came one day after The New York Times published an in-depth report on Oyo, a tech-enabled budget hotel chain and rising star in the Indian tech community. The NYT wrote that Oyo offers unlicensed rooms and has bribed police officials to deter trouble, among other toxic practices.

Whether Oyo, backed by billions from the SoftBank Vision Fund, will become India’s WeWork is the real cause for concern. India’s startup ecosystem is likely to face a number of barriers as it grows to compete with the likes of Silicon Valley.

Follow Manish here or on Twitter for more of TechCrunch’s growing India coverage.


Venture capital highlights (it’s been a slow week)


How to find the right reporter to pitch your startup

If you’ve still not subscribed to Extra Crunch, now is the time. Longtime TechCrunch reporter and editor Josh Constine is launching a new series to teach you how to pitch your startup. In it he will examine embargoes, exclusives, press kit visuals, interview questions and more. The first of many, How to find the right reporter to pitch your startup, is online now.

Subscribe to Extra Crunch here.


#EquityPod

tc equity podcast ios 2 1

Another week, another new episode of TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, Equity. This week, we discussed a few of 2019’s largest scandals, Peloton’s strange holiday ad and the controversy over at the luggage startup Away. Listen here and be sure to subscribe, too.

For anyone wondering about changes at Equity following my departure from TechCrunch, the lovely Alex Wilhelm (founding Equity co-host) will keep the show alive and, soon enough, there will be a brand new co-host in my place. Please keep supporting the show and be sure to recommend it to all your podcast-adoring friends.

 


0

Alphabet-backed primary care startup One Medical files to go public

04:16 | 4 January

One Medical, a San Francisco-based primary care startup with tech-infused, concierge services filed for an IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission today.

Internal medicine doctor Tom Lee founded the startup, now valued at well-over $1 billion dollars, in 2007. Lee exited his company in 2017, leaving it in the hands of former UnitedHealth group executive Amir Rubin.

The startup currently operates 72 health clinics in nine major cities throughout the U.S., with three more markets expected to open in 2020 and has raised just over $500 in venture capital from it’s biggest investor, the Carlyle Group (which owns just over a quarter of shares), Alphabet’s GV, J.P. Morgan and others. Google also incorporates One Medical into its campuses and accounts for about 10% of the company revenue, according to the SEC filing. The filing also mentions the company, which is officially incorporated as 1Life Healthcare Inc. ONEM, now plans to raise about $100 million.

Presumably, this money will help the company improve upon its technology and expand to more markets. We’ve reached out to One Medical for more and so far have only been referred to its wire statement.

According to that statement, One Medical has applied for a listing as ticker symbol, ONEM under its common stock on the Nasdaq Global Select Market.

 

 


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2019 Africa Roundup: Jumia IPOs, China goes digital, Nigeria becomes fintech capital

12:53 | 30 December

2019 brought more global attention to Africa’s tech scene than perhaps any previous year.

A high profile IPO, visits by both Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), and big Chinese startup investment energized that.

The last 12 months served as a grande finale to 10 years that saw triple digit increases in startup formation and VC on the continent.

Here’s an overview of the 2019 market events that captured attention and capped off a decade of rapid growth in African tech.

IPOs

The story of the year is the April IPO on the NYSE of Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia. This was the first listing of a VC backed tech company operating in Africa on a major global exchange —  which brought its own unpredictability.

Founded in 2012, Jumia pioneered much of its infrastructure to sell goods to consumers online in Africa.

With Nigeria as its base market, the Rocket Internet backed company created accompanying delivery and payments services and went on to expand online verticals into 14 Africa countries (though it recently exited a few). Jumia now sells everything from mobile-phones to diapers and offers online services such as food-delivery and classifieds.

Seven years after its operational launch, Jumia’s stock debut kicked off with fanfare in 2019, only to be followed by volatility.

The online retailer gained investor confidence out of the gate, more than doubling its $14.95 opening share price post IPO.

That lasted until May, when Jumia’s stock came under attack from short-seller Andrew Left,  whose firm Citron Research issued a report accusing the company of fraud. The American activist investor’s case was bolstered, in part, by a debate that played out

on Jumia’s legitimacy as an African startup, given its (primarily) European senior management.

The entire affair was further complicated during Jumia’s second quarter earnings call when the company disclosed a fraud perpetrated by some of its employees and sales agents. Jumia’s CEO Sacha Poignonnec emphasized the matter was closed, financially marginal and not the same as Andrew Left’s short-sell claims.

Whatever the balance, Jumia’s 2019 ups and downs cast a cloud over its stock with investors. Since the company’s third-quarter earnings-call, Jumia’s NYSE share-price has lingered at around $6 — less than half of its original $14.95 opening, and roughly 80% lower than its high.

Even with Jumia’s post-IPO rocky road, the continent’s leading e-commerce company still has heap of capital and is on pace to generate over $100 million in revenues in 2019 (albeit with big losses).

The company plans reduce costs by generating more revenue from higher-margin internet services, such as payments and classifieds.

There’s a fairly simple equation for Jumia to rebuild shareholder confidence in 2020: avoid scandals, increase revenues over losses. And now that the company’s publicly traded — with financial reporting requirements — there’ll be four earnings calls a year to evaluate Jumia’s progress. 

Jumia may not be the continent’s standout IPO for much longer. Events in 2019 point to Interswitch becoming the second African digital company to list on a global exchange in 2020.  The Nigerian fintech firm confirmed to TechCrunch in November it had reached a billion-dollar unicorn valuation, after a (reported) $200 million investment by Visa. 

Founded in 2002 by Mitchell Elegbe, Interswitch created much of the initial infrastructure to digitize Nigeria’s (then) predominantly cash-based economy. Interswitch has been teasing a public listing since 2016, but delayed it for various reasons. With the company’s billion-dollar valuation in 2019, that pause is likely to end.

“An [Interswitch] IPO is still very much in the cards; likely sometime in the first half of 2020,” a source with knowledge of the situation told TechCrunch. 

China-Africa goes digital

2019 was the year when Chinese actors pivoted to African tech. China is known for its strategic relationship with Africa based (largely) on trade and infrastructure. Over the last 10 years, the country has been less engaged in the continent’s digital-scene.

china africa techThat was until a torrent of investment and partnerships this past year.

July saw Chinese-owned Opera raise $50 million in venture spending to support its growing West African digital commercial network, which includes browser, payments and ride-hail services.

In August, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave partnered with Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba’s Alipay to offer digital payments between Africa and China.

In September, China’s Transsion  — the largest smartphone seller in Africa — listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s new STAR Market. The company raised ≈ $394 million, some of which it is directing toward venture funding and operational expansion in Africa.

The last quarter of 2019 brought a November surprise from China in African tech. Over 15 Chinese investors placed over $240 million in three rounds. Transsion backed consumer payments startup PalmPay raised a $40 million seed, stating its goal to become “Africa’s largest financial services platform.”

Chinese investors also backed Opera-owned OPay’s $120 million raise and East-African trucking logistics company Lori Systems’ (reported) $30 million Series B.

In the new year, TechCrunch will continue to cover the business arc of this surge in Chinese tech investment in Africa. There’ll surely be a number of fresh macro news-points to develop, given the debate (and critique) of China’s role in Africa.

Nigeria and fintech

On debate, the case could be made that 2019 was the year when Nigeria become Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.

Kenya has held this title hereto, with the local success and global acclaim of its M-Pesa mobile-money product. But more founders and VCs are opting for Nigeria as the epicenter for digital finance growth on the continent.

A rough tally of 2019 TechCrunch coverage — including previously mentioned rounds — pegs fintech related investment in the West African country at around $400 million over the last 12 months. That’s equivalent to roughly one-third of all startup VC raised for the entire continent in 2018, according to Partech stats.

From OPay to PalmPay to Visa — startups, big finance companies and investors are making Nigeria home-base for their digital finance operations and outward expansion in Africa.

The founder of early-stage payment startup ChipperCash, Ham Serunjogi, explained the imperative to operate in the West African country. “Nigeria is the largest economy and most populous country in Africa. Its fintech industry is one of the most advanced in Africa, up there with Kenya  and South Africa,” he told TechCrunch in May.

When all the 2019 VC numbers are counted, it will be worth matching up Nigeria to Kenya to see how the countries compared for fintech specific investment over the last year.

Acquisitions

Tech acquisitions continue to be somewhat rare in Africa, but there were several to note in 2019. Two of the continent’s powerhouse tech incubators joined forces in September, when Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub acquired Nairobi based iHub, for an undisclosed amount.

CChub ihub Acquisition

The acquisition brought together Africa’s most powerful tech hubs by membership networks, volume of programs, startups incubated and global visibility. It also elevated CcHub’s Bosun Tijani standing across Africa’s tech ecosystem, as the CEO of the new joint-entity, which also has a VC arm.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub/iHub CEO Bosun Tijani

In other acquisition activity, French television company Canal+ acquired the ROK film studio from Nigerian VOD company IROKOtv, for an undisclosed amount. The deal put ROK founder and producer Mary Njoku in charge of a new organization with larger scope and resources.

Many outside Africa aren’t aware that Nigeria’s Nollywood is the Hollywood of the continent and one of the largest film industries (by production volume) in the world. Canal+ told TechCrunch it looks to bring Mary and the Nollywood production ethos to produce content in French speaking African countries.

Other notable 2019 African tech takeovers included Kenyan internet company BRCK’s acquisition of internet provider Surf, Nigerian digital-lending startup OneFi’s Amplify buy and Merck KGaa’s purchase of Kenya-based online healthtech company ConnectMed.

Moto ride-hail mania

In 2019, Africa’s motorcycle ride-hail market — worth an estimated $4 billion — saw a flurry of investment and expansion by startups looking to scale on-demand taxi services. Uber and Bolt got into the motorcycle taxi business in Africa in 2018.

Ampersand Africa e motorcycle

Ampersand in Rwanda

A number of local and foreign startups have continued to grow in key countries, such as Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya.

A battle for funding and market-share emerged in Nigeria in 2019, between key moto ride-hail startups Max.ng, Gokada, and Opera owned ORide.

The on-demand motorcycle market in Africa has attracted foreign investment and moved toward EV development. In May, MAX.ng raised a $7 million Series A round with participation from Yamaha and is using a portion to pilot renewable energy powered e-motorcycles in Africa.

In August, the government of Rwanda announced a national policy to phase out gas-motorcycle taxis altogether in favor of e-motos, in partnership with early-stage EV startup Ampersand.

New funds

The year 2019 saw several new funding initiatives for Africa’s startups. Senegalese VC investor Marieme Diop helped spearhead Dakar Network Angels, a seed-fund for startups in French-speaking Africa — or 24 of the continent’s 54 countries.

Africinvest teamed up with Cathay Innovation to announce the Cathay Africinvest Innovation Fund, a $100+ million capital pool aimed at Series A to C-stage startup investments in fintech, logistics, AI, agtech and edutech.

Accion Venture Lab launched a $24 million fintech fund open to African startups.

And Naspers offered more details on who can pitch to its 1.4 billion rand (≈$100 million) Naspers Foundry fund and made its first investment in online cleaning services company SweepSouth.

Closed up shop

Like any tech ecosystem, not every startup in Africa killed it or even continued to tread water in 2019. Two e-commerce companies — DealDey in Nigeria and Afrimarket in Ivory Coast — closed up digital shop.

Southern Africa’s Econet Media shut down its Kwese TV digital entertainment business in August.

And South Africa based, Pan-African focused cryptocurrency payment startup Wala ceased operations in June. Founder Tricia Martinez named the continent’s poor infrastructure as one of the culprits to shutting down. A possible signal to the startup’s demise could have been its 2017 ICO, where Wala netted only 4% of its $30 million token-offering.

Africa’s startups go global

2019 saw more startups expand products and business models developed in Africa to new markets abroad. In March, Flexclub — a South African venture that matches investors and drivers to cars for ride-hailing services — announced its expansion to Mexico in a partnership with Uber.

In May, ExtraCrunch profiled three African founded fintech startups — Flutterwave, Migo and ChipperCash — developing their business models strategically in Africa toward plans to offer their products in other regions.

By December, Migo (formerly branded Mines) had announced its expansion to Brazil on a $20 million Series B raise.

2020 and beyond

As we look to what could come in the new year and decade for African tech, it’s telling to look back. Ten years ago, there were a lot of “if” questions on whether the continent’s ecosystem could produce certain events: billion dollar startup valuations, IPOs on major exchanges, global expansion, investment from the world’s top VCs.

All those questionable events of the past have become reality in African tech, even if some of them are still in low abundance.

There’s no crystal ball for any innovation ecosystem — not the least Africa’s — but there are several things I’ll be on the lookout for in 2020 and beyond.

Two In the near term, start with what Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey may do around Bitcoin and cryptocurrency on his return to Africa (lookout for an upcoming TechCrunch feature on this).

I’ll also follow the next-phase of e-commerce in Africa, which could pit Jumia more competitively against DHL’s Africa eShop, Opera and China’s Alibaba (which hasn’t yet entered Africa in full).

On a longer-term basis, a development to follow is how the continent’s first wave of millionaire and billionaire tech-founders could disrupt dynamics around politics, power, and philanthropy in Africa —  hopefully for the better.

More notable 2019 Africa-related coverage @TechCrunch

 


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#ANGELS founding partner raises $25M for debut fund Moxxie Ventures

16:00 | 18 December

Katie Jacobs Stanton, a former Twitter executive and co-founder of the #ANGELS investment collective, has raised $25 million for her debut venture capital fund Moxxie Ventures.

As the sole general partner, she plans to invest between $250,000 and $500,000 in underrepresented and underestimated founders, Stanton tells TechCrunch, with a focus on “products that make life and work better.”

Stanton co-founded #ANGELS alongside Chloe Sladden, Jessica Verrilli, April Underwood, Vijaya Gadde and Jana Messerschmidt in 2014 with a goal of getting more women on startup cap tables. The #ANGELS, four of whom are Moxxie limited partners, share deal flow but invest in startups independently. Stanton said she will continue her work with the collective as she ramps up Moxxie Ventures.

“I wanted more agency over the types of companies I wanted to back,” Stanton said of her decision to raise capital from LPs rather than stick to investing personal capital. As for her decision to invest primarily in minority entrepreneurs, Stanton cited recent statistics.

In 2019, just 2.8% of U.S. venture capital invested went to female-led startups, a small increase from last year’s 2.2%. Despite efforts from new organizations like All Raise, venture capital firms tapping their first-ever female check-writers or new funds cropping up focused on the underfunded, the latest data paints a disappointing picture.

“We just aren’t moving fast enough,” Stanton said. “We need to take bigger swings to move the needle faster. The fastest way to make progress isn’t to move inside those existing institutions but by creating new ones.”

Stanton is not new to investing, having built a portfolio of some 40 companies over the last several years, including Cameo, Carta, Coinbase, Ethel’s Club, Lambda School, Literati, Modern Fertility, Shape Security and Threads. As such, she was able to raise the $25 million effort in roughly six months. However, even with an extensive network of Silicon Valley heavyweights, Stanton said she pitched 279 individuals and organizations before closing the fund: “I told myself if I’m not getting rejected daily, I’m not trying hard enough.”

The process made her a better investor, she said. A whopping 29% of the entities she initiated conversations with ghosted her after an initial reply indicating interest. “A fast no is a lot better than a long maybe,” she said. “It’s kind of like we went on these dates — it’s not like we had a great date — and I never heard from him again.”

Entrepreneurs, of course, are all too familiar with the concept of ghosting, as venture capital investors are prone to disappearing or elongating an eventual “sorry, we’re not interested.”

Moxxie enters the market at an interesting time for venture capital fundraising and investing. There are more funds than ever deploying more capital than ever. In fact, there are so many new sub-$100 million funds, there are new names to differentiate the sub $25 million funds, or nano funds, from the $25 million to $100 million funds, or micro funds. In total, U.S. VCs were expected to dole out more than $120 billion this year, surpassing last year’s all-time high of $117 billion.

The frothy markets have allowed entrepreneurs to be pickier than in the past, leading to swelling valuations and frustrated investors. Stanton, like any optimistic VC, said she plans to be very disciplined and committed to the strategy she pitched LPs, meaning she will do her best to avoid the buzzy Y Combinator graduates that seek a $37 million valuation right out of the gate.

“People are raising a lot more money now just because they can,” Stanton said. “I am trying to maintain some discipline and have some constraints around the valuation. When I hear things valued at $20 million at seed pre-revenue, I just back away. There’s going to be a correction at some point and I worry for those founders.”

Moxxie has invested in four startups to date, including women’s professional network Elpha, hiring platform Purple Dot, a soon-to-launch tool for arranging meetings called Sesh and Honeycomb Labs, a parenting tech startup.

“My kids were encouraging me to do this and I realized it really just takes courage to do what founders do every day and to create something from nothing,” Stanton said of the firm’s name, Moxxie. “I added the extra X for the female chromosome because of my passion for the broader female founder and investor community.”

I’m really proud of this,” she added. “It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done but it’s something that I think is important to do.”

 


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Domio raises $100M in equity and debt to take on Airbnb and hotels with its curated apartments

22:04 | 17 December

Airbnb has well and truly disrupted the world of travel accommodation, changing the conversation not just around how people discover and book places to stay, but what they expect when they get there, and what they expect to pay. Today, one of the startups riding that wave is announcing a significant round of funding to fuel its own contribution to the marketplace.

Domio, a startup that designs and then rents out apart-hotels with kitchens and other full-home experiences, has raised $100 million, $50 million in equity and $50 million in debt, to expand its business in the US and globally to 25 markets by next year, up from 12 today. Its target customers are younger, millennials travelling in groups, or families swayed by the size and scope of the accommodation — typically five times bigger than the average hotel room — as well as the price, which is on average 25% cheaper than a hotel room.

The Series B, which actually closed in August of this year, was led by GGV Capital, with participation from Eldridge Industries, 3L Capital, Tribeca Venture Partners, Softbank NY, Tenaya Capital and Upper90. Upper90 also led the debt round, which will be used to lease and set up new properties.

Domio is not disclosing its valuation, but Jay Roberts, the founder and CEO, said in an interview that it’s a “huge upround” and around 50x the valuation it had in its seed round and that the company has tripled its revenues in the last year. Prior to this, Domio had only raised around $17 million, according to data from PitchBook.

For some comparisons, Sonder — another company that rents out serviced apartments to the kind of travellers who have a taste for boutique hotels — earlier this year raised $225 million at a valuation north of $1 billion. Others like Guesty, which are building platforms for others to list and manage their apartments on platforms like Airbnb, recently raised $35 million with a valuation likely in the range of $180 million to $200 million. Airbnb is estimated to be valued around $31 billion.

Domio plays in an interesting corner of the market. For starters, it focuses its accommodations at many of the same demographics as an Airbnb. But where Airbnb offers a veritable hodgepodge of rooms and homes — some are people’s homes, some are vacation places, some never had and never will have a private occupant, and across all those the range of quality varies wildly — Domio offers predictability and consistency with its (possibly more anodyne) inventory.

“We are competing with amateur hosts on Airbnb,” said Roberts, who previously worked in real estate investment banking. “This is the next step, a modern brand, the next Marriott but with a more tech-powered brain and operating model.” These are not to be confused with something like Hilton’s Homewood Suites, Roberts stressed to me. He referred to Homewood as “a soulless hotel chain.”

“Domio is the anti-hotel chain,” he added.

Roberts is also quick to describe how Domio is not a real estate company as much as it is a tech-powered business. For starters, it uses quant-style algorithms that it’s built in-house to identify regions where it wants to build out its business, basing it not just on what consumers are searching for, but also weather patterns, economic indicators and other factors. After identifying a city or other location, it works on securing properties.

It typically sets up its accommodations in newer or completely new buildings, where developers — at least up to now — are not usually constructing with short-term rentals in mind. Instead, they are considering an option like Domio as an alternative to selling as condominiums or apartments, something that might come up if they are sensing that there is a softening in the market. “We typically have 75%-78% occupancy,” Roberts said. He added that hotels on average have occupancy rates in the high 60% nationally.

As Domio lengthens its track record — its 12 U.S. markets include Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Phoenix — Roberts says that they’re getting a more select seat at the table in conversations.

“Investors are starting to go out buy properties on our behalf and lease them to us,” he said. This gives the startup a much more favorable rate and terms on those deals. “The next step is that Domio will manage these directly.” The most recent property it signed, he noted, includes a Whole Foods at the ground level and a gym.

Using technology to identify where to grow is not the only area where tech plays a role. Roberts said that the company is now working on an app — yet to be released — that will be the epicenter of how guests interact to book places and manage their experience once there.

“Everything you can do by speaking to a human in a traditional hotel you will be able to do with the Domio app,” he said. That will include ordering room service, getting more towels, booking experiences and getting restaurant recommendations. “You can book your Uber through the Domio app, or sync your Spotify account to play music in the apartment.

There are plans to extend the retail experience too using the app. Roberts says it will be a “shoppable” experience where, if you like a sofa or piece of art in the place where you’re staying, you can order it for your own home. You can even order the same wallpaper that’s been designed to decorate Domio apartments.

Ripe for the booking

Although Airbnb has grown to be nearly as ubiquitous as hotels (and perhaps even more prominent, depending on who you are talking to), the wider travel and accommodation market is still ripe for the taking, estimated to reach $171 billion by 2023 and the highest growth sector in the travel industry.

“Airbnb has taught us that hotels are not the only to stay,” said Hans Tung, GGV’s managing partner. “Domio is capitalizing on the global shift in short-term travel and the consumer demand for branded experiences.  From my travels around the world, there is a large, underserved audience – millennials, families, business teams – who prefer the combined benefits of an apartment and hotel in a single branded experience.”

I mentioned to Roberts that the leasing model reminded me a little of WeWork, which itself does not own the property it curates and turns into office space for its tenants. (The Softbank investor connection is interesting in that regard.) Roberts was very quick to say that it’s not the same kind of business, even if both are based around leased property re-rented out to tenants.

“One of the things we liked about Domio is that is very capital efficient,” said Tung, “focusing on the model and payback period. The short-term nature of customer stays and the combination of experience/price required for to maintain loyal customers are natural enforcers of efficient unit economics.”

“For GGV, Domio stands out in two ways,” he continued. “First, CEO Jay Roberts and the Domio team’s emphasis on execution is impressive, with expansion in to 12 cities in just three years. They have the right combination of vision, speed and agility. Domio’s model can readily tap into the global opportunity as they have ambition to scale to new markets. The global travel and tourism spend is $2.8 trillion with 5 billion annual tourists. Global travellers like having the flexibility and convenience of both an apartment and hotel – with Domio they can have both.”

 


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Google details its approach to cloud-native security

20:00 | 17 December

Over the years, Google’s various whitepapers, detailing how the company solves specific problems at scale, have regularly spawned new startup ecosystems and changed how other enterprises think about scaling their own tools. Today, the company is publishing a new security whitepaper that details how it keeps it cloud-native architecture safe.

The name, BeyondProd, already indicates that this is an extension of the BeyondCorp zero trust system the company first introduced a few years ago. While BeyondCorp is about shifting security away from VPNs and firewalls on the perimeter to the individual users and devices, BeyondProd focuses on Google’s zero trust approach to how it connects machines, workloads and services.

Unsurprisingly, BeyondProd is based on pretty much the same principles as BeyondCorp, including network protection at the end, no mutual trust between services, trusted machines running known code, automated and standardized change rollout, and isolated workloads. All of this, of course, focuses on securing cloud-native application that generally communicate over APIs and run on modern infrastructure.

“Altogether, these controls mean that containers and the microservices running inside can be deployed, communicate with each other, and run next to each other, securely; without burdening individual microservice developers with the security and implementation details of the underlying infrastructure,” Google explains.

Google, of course, notes that it is making all of these features available to developers through its own services like GKE and Anthos, its hybrid cloud platform. In addition, though, the company also stresses that a lot of its open-source tools also allow enterprises to build systems that adhere to the same platforms, including the likes of Envoy, Istio, gVisor and others.

“n the same way that BeyondCorp helped us to evolve beyond a perimeter-based security model, BeyondProd represents a similar leap forward in our approach to production security,” Google says. “By applying the security principles in the BeyondProd model to your own cloud-native infrastructure, you can benefit from our experience, to strengthen the deployment of your workloads, how your their communications are secured, and how they affect other workloads.”

You can read the full whitepaper here.

 


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San Diego’s Trust & Will raises $6 million for online estate planning

17:30 | 17 December

Estate planning in the U.S. is a $180 billion industry and unlike many of the other areas in the multi-trillion dollar financial services market, it’s one that has yet to see a slew of technology companies come in to try and improve efficiencies.

One notable exception is Trust & Will, the San Diego-based startup that has announced a new $6 million investment to expand sales and marketing, product development and partnerships.

The company joins services like Quicken’s WillMaker and startups like Everplans as relatively new entrants into the technology-enabled estate planning business.

Timing seems good for the company and its other competitors. The $180 billion estate planning business is expected to surge as millennials start having children and begin thinking about their wills. It joins other staid businesses like life insurance and home insurance as a category that’s traditionally been overlooked by entrepreneurs who now see increasingly digital customers make demands of industry participants.

Right now, half of all adults in the U.S. have no will and millions more have out-of-date estate plans, according to Trust & Will. In addition, 45 million parents with minor children have no form of estate plan.

Since its launch in April, Trust & Will has had 60,000 members enroll in the company’s platform and those enrollments represent $15.1 billion in total assets, $2.7 billion in reported life insurance policies, $137 million in charitable commitments and 88% holding real estate assets.

The company has a tiered subscription model offering a $399-$499 service plus an annual subscription fee for the creation of a trust-based estate plan that the company says can avoid probate for the protection and transfer of assets; a $69-$129 level, which includes plans for surviving beneficiaries and asset distribution; and a $39-$49 plan for parents with minor children who aren’t ready to complete a will.

While customers may be able to draft a will themselves and just store it in a safe place, some people will likely gravitate to a digital will. At least, that’s what Link Ventures, Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, Western Technology Investment, Techstars Ventures, Luma Launch and Halogen Ventures are hoping for with their commitment to the company’s Series A financing.

In January the company closed its first electronic will with help from its industry partner, Notarize. Co-founded by serial entrepreneur Cody Barbo, former product ad marketing strategist, Daniel Goldstein, and product designer Brian Lamb, the company now counts eleven people on staff.

“Trust & Will is another example of how digital services are disrupting traditional industries by offering a convenient and lower cost estate planning solution that helps consumers protect their valuable assets and loved ones,” said Rob Chaplinsky, a managing director at Trust & Will’s series A lead investor, Link Ventures. “We have been following this category for quite some and feel that Trust and Will’s product and rapid market traction are second to none. We look forward to leveraging our big data assets to help them scale.”

 


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