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Main article: Fundings Exits

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Cowboy, the Belgian e-bike startup, raises €10M Series A

21:00 | 22 October

Cowboy, the Belgium startup that’s designed and sells a smarter electronic bicycle, has raised €10 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Tiger Global Management, with participation from previous backers Index Ventures, and Hardware Club. The new capital will be used to scale operations, and expand beyond Belgum into Germany, U.K., Netherlands, and France.

Founded in January 2017 by Adrien Roose and Karim Slaoui, who both previously co-founded Take Eat Easy (an early Deliveroo competitor), and Tanguy Goretti, who was previously co-founded ridesharing startup Djump, Cowboy set out to build and sell direct a better designed and e-bike.

This included making the Cowboy lighter in weight and more stylish than models from incumbents, and adding automatic motor assistance. The latter utilises built-in sensor technology that measures speed and torque, and adjusts to pedaling style and force to deliver an added boost of motor-assisted speed at key moments e.g. when you start pedaling, accelerate or go uphill.

In addition, Cowboy’s “smart” features powered by the Cowboy app enables the device to be switched on and off, track location, provide “ride stats,” and support remote troubleshooting and software updates. A theft detection feature is also promised soon.

“We designed the Cowboy bike to appeal specifically to people who are yet to be convinced that electric bikes are a practical and mainstream mode of transport,” says Adrien Roose, Cowboy’s CEO, in a statement.

“We focused our attention on the three main reasons people are reluctant to purchase electric bikes: high cost, poor design and redundant technology – or a combination of the above – and we set about fixing them all”.

 


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China is funding the future of American biotech

20:15 | 20 October

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a health craze, and it is being driven by “Eastern” medicine.

It’s been a record year for US medical investing, but investors in Beijing and Shanghai are now increasingly leading the largest deals for US life science and biotech companies. In fact, Chinese venture firms have invested more this year into life science and biotech in the US than they have back home, providing financing for over 300 US-based companies, per Pitchbook. That’s the story at Viela Bio, a Maryland-based company exploring treatments for inflammation and autoimmune diseases, which raised a $250 million Series A led by three Chinese firms.

Chinese capital’s newfound appetite also flows into the mainland. Business is booming for Chinese medical startups, who are also seeing the strongest year of venture investment ever, with over one hundred companies receiving $4 billion in investment.

As Chinese investors continue to shift their strategies towards life science and biotech, China is emphatically positioning itself to be a leader in medical investing with a growing influence on the world’s future major health institutions.

Chinese VCs seek healthy returns

We like to talk about things we can interact with or be entertained by. And so as nine-figure checks flow in and out of China with stunning regularity, we fixate on the internet giants, the gaming leaders or the latest media platform backed by Tencent or Alibaba.

However, if we follow the money, it’s clear that the top venture firms in China have actually been turning their focus towards the country’s deficient health system.

A clear leader in China’s strategy shift has been Sequoia Capital China, one of the country’s most heralded venture firms tied to multiple billion-dollar IPOs just this year.

Historically, Sequoia didn’t have much interest in the medical sector.  Health was one of the firm’s smallest investment categories, and it participated in only three health-related deals from 2015-16, making up just 4% of its total investing activity. 

Recently, however, life sciences have piqued Sequoia’s fascination, confirms a spokesperson with the firm.  Sequoia dove into six health-related deals in 2017 and has already participated in 14 in 2018 so far.  The firm now sits among the most active health investors in China and the medical sector has become its second biggest investment area, with life science and biotech companies accounting for nearly 30% of its investing activity in recent years.

Health-related investment data for 2015-18 compiled from Pitchbook, Crunchbase, and SEC Edgar

There’s no shortage of areas in need of transformation within Chinese medical care, and a wide range of strategies are being employed by China’s VCs. While some investors hope to address influenza, others are focused on innovative treatments for hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

For instance, according to the Chinese Journal of Cancer, in 2015, 36% of world’s lung cancer diagnoses came from China, yet the country’s cancer survival rate was 17% below the global average. Sequoia has set its sights on tackling China’s high rate of cancer and its low survival rate, with roughly 70% of its deals in the past two years focusing on cancer detection and treatment.

That is driven in part by investments like the firm’s $90 million Series A investment into Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics, a company developing innovative immunotherapy cancer treatments. The company is a quintessential example of how Chinese VCs are building the country’s next set of health startups using their international footprints and learnings from across the globe.

Founded as a joint-venture offshoot between US-based Juno Therapeutics and China’s WuXi AppTec, JW benefits from Juno’s experience as a top developer of cancer immunotherapy drugs, as well as WuXi’s expertise as one of the world’s leading contract research organizations, focusing on all aspects of the drug R&D and development cycle.

Specifically, JW is focused on the next-generation of cell-based immunotherapy cancer treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technologies. (Yeah…I know…) For the WebMD warriors and the rest of us with a medical background that stopped at tenth-grade chemistry, CAR-T essentially looks to attack cancer cells by utilizing the body’s own immune system.

Past waves of biotech startups often focused on other immunologic treatments that used genetically-modified antibodies created in animals.  The antibodies would effectively act as “police,” identifying and attaching to “bad guy” targets in order to turn off or quiet down malignant cells.  CAR-T looks instead to modify the body’s native immune cells to attack and kill the bad guys directly.

Chinese VCs are investing in a wide range of innovative life science and biotech startups. (Photo by Eugeneonline via Getty Images)

The international and interdisciplinary pedigree of China’s new medical leaders not only applies to the organizations themselves but also to those running the show.

At the helm of JW sits James Li.  In a past life, the co-founder and CEO held stints as an executive heading up operations in China for the world’s biggest biopharmaceutical companies including Amgen and Merck.  Li was also once a partner at the Silicon Valley brand-name investor, Kleiner Perkins.

JW embodies the benefits that can come from importing insights and expertise, a practice that will come to define the companies leading the medical future as the country’s smartest capital increasingly finds its way overseas.

GV and Founders Fund look to keep the Valley competitive

Despite heavy investment by China’s leading VCs, Silicon Valley is doubling down in the US health sector.  (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JASON LEE)

Innovation in medicine transcends borders. Sickness and death are unfortunately universal, and groundbreaking discoveries in one country can save lives in the rest.

The boom in China’s life science industry has left valuations lofty and cross-border investment and import regulations in China have improved.

As such, Chinese venture firms are now increasingly searching for innovation abroad, looking to capitalize on expanding opportunities in the more mature US medical industry that can offer innovative technologies and advanced processes that can be brought back to the East.

In April, Qiming Venture Partners, another Chinese venture titan, closed a $120 million fund focused on early-stage US healthcare. Qiming has been ramping up its participation in the medical space, investing in 24 companies over the 2017-18 period.

New firms diving into the space hasn’t frightened the Bay Area’s notable investors, who have doubled down in the US medical space alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Partner directories for America’s most influential firms are increasingly populated with former doctors and medically-versed VCs who can find the best medical startups and have a growing influence on the flow of venture dollars in the US.

At the top of the list is Krishna Yeshwant, the GV (formerly Google Ventures) general partner leading the firm’s aggressive push into the medical industry.

Krishna Yeshwant (GV) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

A doctor by trade, Yeshwant’s interest runs the gamut of the medical spectrum, leading investments focusing on anything from real-time patient care insights to antibody and therapeutic technologies for cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Per data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, Krishna has been GV’s most active partner over the past two years, participating in deals that total over a billion dollars in aggregate funding.

Backed by the efforts of Yeshwant and select others, the medical industry has become one of the most prominent investment areas for Google’s venture capital arm, driving roughly 30% of its investments in 2017 compared to just under 15% in 2015.

GV’s affinity for medical-investing has found renewed life, but life science is also part of the firm’s DNA.  Like many brand-name Valley investors, GV founder Bill Maris has long held a passion for the health startups.  After leaving GV in 2016, Maris launched his own fund, Section 32, focused specifically on biotech, healthcare and life sciences. 

In the same vein, life science and health investing has been part of the lifeblood for some major US funds including Founders Fund, which has consistently dedicated over 25% of its deployed capital to the space since at least 2015.

The tides may be changing, however, as the recent expansion of oversight for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) may severely impact the flow of Chinese capital into areas of the US health sector. 

Under its extended purview, CFIUS will review – and possibly block – any investment or transaction involving a foreign entity related to the production, design or testing of technology that falls under a list of 27 critical industries, including biotech research and development.

The true implications of the expanded rules will depend on how aggressively and how often CFIUS exercises its power.  But a lengthy review process and the threat of regulatory blocks may significantly increase the burden on Chinese investors, effectively shutting off the Chinese money spigot.

Regardless of CFIUS, while China’s active presence in the US health markets hasn’t deterred Valley mainstays, with a severely broken health system and an improved investment environment backed by government support, China’s commitment to medical innovation is only getting stronger.

VCs target a disastrous health system

Deficiencies in China’s health sector has historically led to troublesome outcomes.  Now the government is jump-starting investment through supportive policy. (Photo by Alexander Tessmer / EyeEm via Getty Images)

They say successful startups identify real problems that need solving. Marred with inefficiencies, poor results, and compounding consumer frustration, China’s health industry has many

Outside of a wealthy few, citizens are forced to make often lengthy treks to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals in urban centers.  Reception areas exist only in concept, as any open space is quickly filled by hordes of the concerned, sick, and fearful settling in for wait times that can last multiple days. 

If and when patients are finally seen, they are frequently met by overworked or inexperienced medical staff, rushing to get people in and out in hopes of servicing the endless line behind them. 

Historically, when patients were diagnosed, treatment options were limited and ineffective, as import laws and affordability issues made many globally approved drugs unavailable.

As one would assume, poor detection and treatment have led to problematic outcomes. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and chronic lung disease accounts for 80% of deaths in China, according to a recent report from the World Bank

Recurring issues of misconduct, deception and dishonesty have amplified the population’s mounting frustration.

After past cases of widespread sickness caused by improperly handled vaccinations, China’s vaccine crisis reached a breaking point earlier this year.  It was revealed that 250,000 children had been given defective and fallacious rabies vaccinations, a fact that inspectors had discovered months prior and swept under the rug.

Fracturing public trust around medical treatment has serious, potentially destabilizing effects. And with deficiencies permeating nearly all aspects of China’s health and medical infrastructure, there is a gaping set of opportunities for disruptive change.

In response to these issues, China’s government placed more emphasis on the search for medical innovation by rolling out policies that improve the chances of success for health startups, while reducing costs and risk for investors.

Billions of public investment flooded into the life science sector, and easier approval processes for patents, research grants, and generic drugs, suddenly made the prospect of building a life science or biotech company in China less daunting. 

For Chinese venture capitalists, on top of financial incentives and a higher-growth local medical sector, loosening of drug import laws opened up opportunities to improve China’s medical system through innovation abroad.

Liquidity has also improved due to swelling global interest in healthcare. Plus, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange recently announced changes to allow the listing of pre-revenue biotech companies.

The changes implemented across China’s major institutions have effectively provided Chinese health investors with a much broader opportunity set, faster growth companies, faster liquidity, and increased certainty, all at lower cost.

However, while the structural and regulatory changes in China’s healthcare system has led to more medical startups with more growth, it hasn’t necessarily driven quality.

US and Western investors haven’t taken the same cross-border approach as their peers in Beijing. From talking with those in the industry, the laxity of the Chinese system, and others, have made many US investors weary of investing in life science companies overseas.

And with the Valley similarly stepping up its focus on startups that sprout from the strong American university system, bubbling valuations have started to raise concern.

But with China dedicating more and more billions across the globe, the country is determined to patch the massive holes in its medical system and establish itself as the next leader in international health innovation.

 


0

Hiver lets you manage shared email addresses from Gmail

17:48 | 19 October

Meet Hiver, a service that lets you collaborate on generic email addresses, such as jobs@yourcompany.com, support@, sales@, etc. Hiver isn’t the only company working on shared inboxes. But compared to Front, everything happens in Gmail directly.

To be fair, Front has been doing a fantastic job when it comes to multiplayer email — and the company has been doing great. Front is a new email client that lets you work together on your inbound emails.

But many teams don’t necessarily want to use a brand new email client. Some people love the Gmail interface so much that they don’t even think about switching to something else.

Hiver is a Google Chrome extension that adds a bunch of feature to your Gmail inbox. In addition to your personal inbox, you can now access shared inboxes with other people in your team. You can then assign an email to one of your coworkers and see what everybody is working on.

If you need help in order to reply to a tedious email, you can write a note in the right column and notify your teammates using @-mentions. All your comments live in this separate column so that you don’t clutter your email thread with forwards and CCs.

Whenever someone starts replying, Hiver shows a collision alert so that customers don’t get two replies. You can also use templates for faster replies, send emails later and share drafts to get another pair of eyes.

More recently, Hiver added automation with simple if/then rules to assign conversations to the right person and categorize your emails automatically.

If you’ve used Front in the past, those features will sound familiar as you can do all of this in Front, and much more. But it turns out that some companies really wanted a “Front for Gmail”.

Hiver just raised a $4 million funding round from Kalaari Capital and Kae Capital. The company is based in India and has 50 employees already. A thousand companies are currently using Hiver, such as Hubspot, Vacasa, Pinterest and Lyft. Most of Hiver’s clients are based in the U.S.

Building a product on top of Gmail creates some limitations. For instance, you’ll have to remain a G Suite customer in order to keep using Hiver. Hiver also works better on desktop. The company has mobile apps, but they are still a bit basic so far.

Hiver uses a software-as-a-service approach. Plans start at $14 per user per month, and you need to pay more for automations, Salesforce integration and more.

 


0

Twilio shops, Uber and Lyft IPO scuttlebutt, and Instacart raises $600M

16:10 | 19 October

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

This week we had the Three Excellent Friends (Connie Loizos, Danny Chrichton, and Alex Wilhelm) on hand to kick things about with Scale Venture Partner’s own

.

As I’ve written the last few weeks, what a pile of news we’ve had recently. And like the last few episodes, we had to pick and choose what to drill into. This week: Twilio-Sendgrid, Palantir, Uber, Lyft, and Tencent Music IPOs, Instacart, and Saudi Arabia.

In order, I think? First, we tackled the week’s biggest venture-themed M&A: Twilio buying SendGrid. Keep in mind that they are both recent IPOs; Twilio went out in 2016, and SendGrid in 2017.

The $2 billion-ish all-stock transaction is effectively Twilio using its rich market cap (rich in terms of its revenue and profit multiples) to snag an obvious (though intelligent) extension of API-powered communications toolset.

Next up we dug into the chance that Palantir is worth $41 billion. Spoiler: It isn’t. Then we chatted the two other recently-floated IPO valuations for Uber ($120 billion) and Lyft ($15 billion). They probably make more sense, depending a little on how you add and then divide.

All that and we also touched on the recent delay in the Tencent Music IPO, a profitable company.

Then we riffed through the Instacart round ($600 million more at a $7.6 billion valuation; wow), and re-touched on Silicon Valley’s currently least popular dinner party topic: how much Saudi money has recently gone to work powering tech startups.

A big thanks to you for not only sticking with Equity for so long, but also for making it quite literally as popular as it has ever been. It’s super fun to have the biggest crew with us every week that we’ve ever had.

You, yes you, are a delight.

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

 


0

Funderbeam CEO to talk about disrupting startup funding at Disrupt Berlin

10:10 | 19 October

Startup funding hasn’t changed much in the past decade. Funderbeam is an interesting company trying to turn everything upside down using a marketplace approach, a modern syndication system and a blockchain-based platform. I’m excited to announce that Funderbeam founder and CEO Kaidi Ruusalepp will come to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

The first boom of venture capital of the 1980s changed everything in the tech industry. Countless of tech startups managed to get funding, grow and make money down the road. Without venture capital firms, some of the biggest tech firms out there just wouldn’t be around.

Arguably, convertible notes and accelerators turned startups into a mainstream phenomenon. It became much easier to get seed funding and some sort of mentorship.

But it hasn’t changed much since then. Funderbeam has some ambitious goals as the company wants to change everything by adding more transparency and liquidity into private funding.

Funderbeam combines multiple products into one. As a startup, you can use Funderbeam to raise your next funding round. Funderbeam acts as a marketplace so that angel investors can invest in your startup. As a business angel, you can invest in a syndicate.

The startup is also building a secondary market so that early investors in a company can sell shares to newer investors. And Funderbeam also compiles all its data on startups to create a database of financial information on startups.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.

Kaidi Ruusalepp

Founder & CEO, Funderbeam

Founder and CEO of Funderbeam, the global funding and trading platform of private companies built on blockchain. Funderbeam combines three stages of investor journey into one: startup analytics, investing, and trading on the secondary market. Powered by blockchain technology, the marketplace delivers capital to growth companies and on-demand liquidity to investors worldwide.

Member of Startup Europe Advisory Board at European Commission. Kaidi is a former CEO of Nasdaq Tallinn Stock Exchange and of the Central Securities Depository. Co-Founder of Estonian Service Industry Association. The first IT lawyer in Estonia, she co-author of the Estonian Digital Signatures Act of 2000 — landmark legislation that enables secure digital identities and, in turn, the country’s booming electronic economy.

Kaidi was named as an Entrepreneur of a Year in 2018 by the Playmakers Technology Award and as a Person of a Year in 2016 by the Estonian IT and Telecommunication Association. Co-author of #Foundership Playbook and mentor of various girls and women in tech initiatives.

 


0

Sick of managing your Airbnb? Vacasa raises $64M to do it for you

16:00 | 18 October

Airbnbing can be a ton of work. Between key pickups, tidying, and maintenance emergencies, renting out your place isn’t such a passive revenue source. But Vacasa equips owners with full-service vacation home management, including listings on top rental platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway, as well as local cleaners who come between guests. It now manages 10,000 vacation rental properties in over 16 countries.

With the peer-to-peer housing market maturing and Airbnb looking to go public, private equity firms see an opportunity in who controls the end relationship with home owners like Vacasa does. So today the startup is announcing it’s raised $64 million in a Series B bridge round led by Riverwood, and joined by Level Equity, Assurant, and Newspring. The cash will fuel Vacasa’s expansion into real estate as it seeks to sell property to people who want to own and rent out a vacation home.

Vacasa was impressively bootstrapped from 2009 until 2015. “I’ve always been passionate about vacation rentals. When traveling with friends or family, I love having common spaces to come together in” says CEO Eric Breon. He founded the company after owning a vacation cabin on the Washington Coast. He’d go up in the Spring, spend a weekend fixing up the place, it’d sit idle all summer, and then he’d have to spend another weekend closing it up. He considered a local property manager, but they massively underestimated how much he could earn off renting it out. So Breon built Vacasa to make it easy for home owners to earn the most money without a hassle.

After years growing the business organically, Vacasa raised a $35 million series A from Level Equity in 2015, then $5 million more from Assurant. Then in fall of 2017, it raised an $103.5 million series B. Now it’s topping up that round with $64 million and a new valuation warranted by the startup’s growth this past year. That brings Vacasa to a total of $207.5 million in funding

While that’s just a fraction of the over $4.4 billion Airbnb has raised. But Vacasa caters to a more upscale market that don’t want to manage the properties themselves. With plenty of popular listings sites out there, Vacasa gets easy distribution. But eventually as the other giants in the space become public companies, they’ll be forced to chase bigger margins that could see them compete with Vacasa after years of partnership.

Breon remains confident, though. When I ask him the biggest existential threat to the business, he declares that “We’ve reached a point where failure isn’t a realistic outcome. We have great retention of our homeowners, and strong recurring revenue. The question is more about how quickly we can continue scaling into the huge $32 billion market we’re focused on.” Getting to an exit might not be quite so straightforward, but with life seeming to get more stressful by the year, there’ll be no shortage of people seeking a getaway.

 


0

Cryptocurrency wallet startup Cobo raises $13M Series A to enter the U.S. and Southeast Asia

08:48 | 18 October

Cobo, a cryptocurrency wallet startup headquartered in Beijing, has raised a $13 million Series A to enter new international markets. The round was led by DHVC and Wu Capital, a family office based in China. Cobo plans to expand in the United States and Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam and Indonesia. Cobo is also now taking pre-orders for Cobo Vault, a hardware wallet (pictured above) that it claims is military grade. Cobo’s Series A brings its total funding to $20 million so far.

Cobo Wallet allows users to store both proof-of-stake and proof-of-work coins. One incentive for people to pick the app over its competitors is the ability to pool proof-of-stake assets with other users so they can increase their chances of mining and validating new blocks on the blockchain. Since launching earlier this year, Cobo says its digital wallet has gained more than 500,000 users.

The startup was founded last year by CEO Shixing Mao, who is known as Discus Fish in the crypto community, and CTO Changhao Jiang, a former platform engineer at Facebook and Google who co-founded Bihang, a cryptocurrency wallet acquired by OKCoin in 2013. Discus Fish, meanwhile, is known for launching F2Pool, China’s first mining pool.

Cobo Vault, which will retail for $479, meets the MIL-STD-810G U.S. military standard for equipment, Cobo’s head of hardware Lixin Liu said in an email, adding that it was built with proprietary firmware created especially for the device, a bank-grade encryption chip and military-grade aluminum.

Cobo Vault’s creation was prompted by an August 2017 incident in which F2Pool was hacked and more than 8,000 ETH was stolen from Discus Fish’s account. Fish also refunded customers’ lost ETH from his own assets. “As a result, Discus Fish was resolute on the fact that for crypto to gain mass market adoption, products had to be made to be hacker-resistant and truly safe,” said Liu.

 


0

Applied gets $2M to make hiring fairer — using algorithms, not AI

14:40 | 17 October

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked.

Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for a product lead, for example, it’s true that loads and loads of product leads are straight, white men with beards. How do we get people to see well what is it actually that this job entails?” founder and CEO Kate Glazebrook tells us. “It might actually be the case that if I don’t know any of the demographic background I discover somebody who I would have otherwise overlooked.”

Applied launched its software as a service recruitment platform in 2016, and Glazebrook says so far it’s been used by more than 55 employers to recruit candidates for more than 2,000 jobs. While more than 50,000 candidates have applied via Applied to date.

The employers themselves are also a diverse bunch, not just the usual suspects from the charitable sector, with both public and private sector organizations, small and large, and from a range of industries, from book publishing to construction, signed up to Applied’s approach. “We’ve been pleased to see it’s not just the sort of thing that the kind of employers you would expect to care about care about,” says Glazebrook.

Applied’s own investor Blackbird Ventures, which is leading the seed round, is another customer — and ended up turning one investment associate vacancy, advertised via the platform, into two roles — hiring both an ethnic minority woman and a man with a startup background as a result of “not focusing on did they have the traditional profile we were expecting”, says Glazebrook.

“They discovered these people were fantastic and had the skills — just a really different set of background characteristics than they were expecting,” she adds.

Other investors in the seed include Skip Capital, Angel Academe, Giant Leap and Impact Generation Partners, plus some unnamed angels. Prior investors include the entity Applied was originally spun out of (Behavioural Insights Team, a “social purpose company” jointly owned by the UK government, innovation charity Nesta, and its own employees), as well as gender advocate and businesswoman Carol Schwartz, and Wharton Professor Adam Grant.

Applied’s approach to recruitment employs plenty of algorithms — including for scoring candidates (its process involves chunking up applications and also getting candidates to answer questions that reflect “what a day in the job actually looks like”), and also anonymizing applications to further strip away bias risks, presenting the numbered candidates in a random order too.

But it does not involve any AI-based matching. If you want to make hiring fairer, AI doesn’t look like a great fit. Last week, for example, Reuters reported how in 2014 ecommerce giant Amazon built and then later scrapped a machine learning based recruitment tool, after it failed to rate candidates in a gender-neutral way — apparently reflecting wider industry biases.

“We’re really clear that we don’t do AI,” says Glazebrook. “We don’t fall into the traps that [companies like] Amazon did. Because it’s not that we’re parsing existing data-sets and saying ‘this is what you hired for last time so we’ll match candidates to that’. That’s exactly where you get this problem of replication of bias. So what we’ve done instead is say ‘actually what we should do is change what you see and how you see it so that you’re only focusing on the things that really matter’.

“So that levels the playing field for all candidates. All candidates are assessed on the basis of their skill, not whether or not they fit the historic profile of people you’ve previously hired. We avoid a lot of those pitfalls because we’re not doing AI-based or algorithmic hiring — we’re doing algorithms that reshape the information you see, not the prediction that you have to arrive at.”

In practice this means Applied must and does take over the entire recruitment process, including writing the job spec itself — to remove things like gendered language which could introduce bias into the process — and slicing and dicing the application process to be able to score and compare candidates and fill in any missing bits of data via role-specific skills tests.

Its approach can be thought of as entirely deconstructing the CV — to not just remove extraneous details and bits of information which can bias the process (such as names, education institutions attended, hobbies etc) but also to actively harvest data on the skills being sought, with employers using the platform to set tests to measure capacities and capabilities they’re after.

“We manage the hiring process right from the design of an inclusive job description, right through to the point of making a hiring decision and all of the selection that happens beneath that,” says Glazebrook. “So we use over 30 behavioural science nudges throughout the process to try and improve conversion and inclusivity — so that includes everything from removal of gendered language in jobs descriptions to anonymization of applications to testing candidates on job preview based assessments, rather than based on their CVs.”

“We also help people to run more evidence-based structured interviews and then make the hiring decision,” she adds. “From a behavioral science standpoint I guess our USP is we’ve redesigned the shortlisting process.”

The platform also provides jobseekers with greater visibility into the assessment process by providing them with feedback — “so candidates get to see where their strengths and weaknesses were” — so it’s not simply creating a new recruitment blackbox process that keeps people in the dark about the assessments being made about them. Which is important from an algorithmic accountability point of view, even without any AI involved. Because vanilla algorithms can still sum up to dumb decisions.

From the outside looking in, Applied’s approach might sound highly manual and high maintenance, given how necessarily involved the platform is in each and every hire, but Glazebrook says in fact it’s “all been baked into the tech” — so the platform takes the strain of the restructuring by automating the hand-holding involved in debiasing job ads and judgements, letting employers self-serve to step them through a reconstructed recruitment process.

“From the job description design, for example, there are eight different characteristics that are automatically picked out, so it’s all self-serve stuff,” explains Glazebrook, noting that the platform will do things like automatically flag words to watch out for in job descriptions or the length of the job ad itself.

“All with that totally automated. And client self-serve as well, so they use a library of questions — saying I’m looking for this particular skill-set and we can say well if you look through the library we’ll find you some questions which have worked well for testing that skill set before.”

“They do all of the assessment themselves, through the platform, so it’s basically like saying rather than having your recruiting team sifting through paper forms of CVs, we have them online scoring candidates through this redesigned process,” she adds.

Employers themselves need to commit to a new way of doing things, of course. Though Applied’s claim is that ultimately a fairer approach also saves time, as well as delivering great hires.

“In many ways, one of the things that we’ve discovered through many customers is that it’s actually saved them loads of time because the shortlisting process is devised in a way that it previously hasn’t been and more importantly they have data and reporting that they’ve never previously had,” she says. “So they now know, through the platform, which of the seven places that they placed the job actually found them the highest quality candidates and also found people who were from more diverse backgrounds because we could automatically pull the data.”

Applied ran its own comparative study of its reshaped process vs a traditional sifting of CVs and Glazebrook says it discovered “statistically significant differences” in the resulting candidate choices — claiming that over half of the pool of 700+ candidates “wouldn’t have got the job if we’d been looking at their CVs”.

They also looked at the differences between the choices made in the study and also found statistically significant differences “particularly in educational and economic background” — “so we were diversifying the people we were hiring by those metrics”.

“We also saw directional evidence around improvements in diversity on disability status and ethnicity,” she adds. “And some interesting stuff around gender as well.”

Applied wants to go further on the proof front, and Glazebrook says it is now automatically collecting performance data while candidates are on the job — “so that we can do an even better job of proving here is a person that you hired and you did a really good job of identifying the skill-sets that they are proving they have when they’re on the job”.

She says it will be feeding this intel back into the platform — “to build a better feedback loop the next time you’re looking to hire that particular role”.

“At the moment, what is astonishing, is that most HR departments 1) have terrible data anyway to answer these important questions, and 2) to the extent they have them they don’t pair those data sets in a way that allows them to prove — so they don’t know ‘did we hire them because of X or Y’ and ‘did that help us to actually replicate what was working well and jettison what wasn’t’,” she adds.

The seed funding will go on further developing these sorts of data science predictions, and also on updates to Applied’s gendered language tool and inclusive job description tool — as well as on sales and marketing to generally grow the business.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Nick Crocker, general partner at Blackbird Ventures said: “Our mission is to find the most ambitious founders, and support them through every stage of their company journey. Kate and the team blew us away with the depth of their insight, the thoughtfulness of their product, and a mission that we’re obsessed with.”

In another supporting statement, Owain Service, CEO of BI Ventures, added: “Applied uses the latest behavioural science research to help companies find the best talent. We ourselves have recruited over 130 people through the platform. This investment represents an exciting next step to supporting more organisations to remove bias from their recruitment processes, in exactly the same way that we do.”

 


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Unifonic, dubbed the Twilio of emerging markets, closes $21M Series A round

13:06 | 17 October

Those of you familiar with the incredible rise of Twilio, which came along to utterly disrupt the communications world, will be interested to hear that another player plans to do the same, but this time in the staid and tricky area of emerging markets.

Unifonic, which has been dubbed “the Twilio of emerging markets” has today closed a $21M Series A funding round led by Saudi Technology Ventures (STV), and the emerging market specialist fund Endeavor Catalyst, which is backed by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, among others. Other participants include RTF ELM, and Raed Ventures.

At $500M, STV is the largest VC fund in the region, and anchored by the Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the largest telecom company in the Middle East. Former Googler turned VC Abdulrahman Tarabzouni lead this round.

As far as we can tell, the is the largest Series A funding in the history of the Middle East technology sector. Appropriately, it shows the sheer growth in the region and comes on the heels of our recent and highly successful TechCrunch Startup Battlefield MENA in Beirut, as well as the Series C round announced by the “Uber for Doctors” in MENA Vezeeta’s Series C.

The capital will be used by Unifonic to scale the company across the MENA region and globally, and invest in the platform.

Unifonic is similar to Twilio in that it is a B2B cloud communications platform, a space that is sometimes called Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS).
With 100+ employees spread across nine regional offices, and over 5,000 B2B clients, many of whom are giants in the MENA region, such as Souq.com, Aramex, Al Jazeera, HSBC, Uber, FedEx, Carrefour and others, they are the MENA region’s clear No.1 in this arena.

Started by two brothers – Hassan and Ahmed Hamdan, they were funded 5 years ago by Endeavor since July 2013. They now regularly compete against their European counterpart, MessageBird, which recently raised $60M (led by Accel and Atomico), and their US benchmark, Twilio.

Hassan told me: “Unifonic’s competition in emerging markets are small players that operate in a single country not cross the region like Unifonic. The product suite is designed for both the non-tech-savvy with last-mile tools already built to plug and play, localized to telecom infrastructure, hosted on multiple clouds, geographically in the region, to increase reliability and minimize latency so transactions are processed in milliseconds.”

In a joint statement Reid Hoffman, Linkedin co-founder and chairman of Endeavor Catalyst and Linda Rottenberg, Endeavor’s Co-founder and CEO said: “Endeavor selects and connects the most promising global companies and entrepreneurs with experienced business advisors to help drive growth and economic development around the world. The founders of Unifonic were selected as high-impact Endeavor Entrepreneurs in 2013, and we are thrilled to announce the Endeavor Catalyst fund is now investing in Unifonic alongside STV as the company continues scaling up.”

Why should you care?

Well, this comes on the heels of the first tech wave in the MENA region (culminating in Amazon’s acquisition of e-commerce player Souq.com last year, and large funding rounds for ride-hailing leader, Careem), this funding represents that Middle East investors are now starting to bet on B2B. It’s also STV’s 3rd publicly announced investment, as they previously invested co-led Careem’s Series D in December 2016 and last month led Vezeeta’s Series B.

As I wrote last year, Middle East startups are growing fast, and that’s even before the flying taxis arrive.

 


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Memory raises $5M to bring AI to time tracking

11:00 | 17 October

Memory, a startup out of Norway and maker of time tracking app Timely, has raised $5 million in further funding. Leading the round is Concentric, and Investinor, with participation from existing investor SNÖ Ventures. The company had previously raised $1 million in 2016 from 500 Startups, and SNÖ.

Founded by Mathias Mikkelsen, a designer by background and who I understand turned down a job offer at Facebook to try his hand at startup life, Memory is applying what it describes as AI and digital technology to create various tools to help solve “the abuses of time” that workers typically face in the modern workplace. The first of those abuses being tackled is the monotonous and time-consuming task of time tracking and filing time sheets — a meta problem if there ever was one.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is with time tracking, the most common currency of work that exists,” Mikkelsen tells me. “The problem is that people find it extremely painful to do and thus do it incorrectly. For example, what did you do last Friday? How long did it take? Humans are not built to remember that kind of detail and we shouldn’t be doing it. Harvard Business Review estimates that U.S. companies loose billions of dollars per day because of incorrect time tracking, so we think the potential is massive”.

The resulting product, dubbed Timely, is billed as a fully automatic time tracking tool. Powered by “AI”, it automatically records everything employees work on and then claims to create accurate time sheets on their behalf.

“We solve it with tons of data and machine learning,” says Mikkelsen. “We have built an ML model (recurring neural net) that literally tracks, completely privately and securely, everything you do in life. Files you work on, locations, websites, calendar, email, etc. Then we analyse all of that, make sense of it and automatically create a timesheet for you. We round up the time, choose projects, tags, all of it. It matches your individual pattern and the only thing our customers have to do is to hit an Accept button and you’re done with your timesheet”.

Mikkelsen says that Timely is currently used by more than 4,000 paying businesses across 160 countries, and that having created a complete “virtual memory” of time data, the Oslo startup is developing new tools to improve the “quality of time” and help businesses use time more effectively. As part of this effort, Memory will use the new funding to double its current 30-person team. It also plans on refining Timely’s AI model and to accelerate international growth.

 


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