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Main article: Fundings Exits

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Three of Apple and Google’s former star chip designers launch NUVIA with $53M in series A funding

23:08 | 15 November

Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.

What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).

Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.

Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.

What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.

Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder

There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.

Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.

Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”

Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.

The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.

Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”

The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company isn’t building on top of ARM or other existing chip architectures.

Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in

Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.

Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.

Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.

I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.

He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.

He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”

Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.

DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.

That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:

They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.

It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.

 


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Investment bank Lazard has quietly recruited a ‘Venture and Growth’ team to focus on European scale-ups

11:00 | 15 November

Lazard, the global investment bank, has been quietly recruiting a ten-person team in London to head up its newly created “Venture and Growth Banking” division to match investors with European scale-ups.

Unlike some investment banks, the focus of Lazard Venture and Growth Banking will include Series B and C. That’s earlier than many startups typically engage the help of an investment bank when raising capital and speaks to the sheer number of European startups currently chasing a pool of venture capital that is increasingly global and fragmented.

The Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team will be headed up by ex-Numis employees Garri Jones and Nick James, with both serving as Managing Directors.

Noteworthy, according to his LinkedIn profile, Jones was previously Venture and Broking Lead at Numis. He was also a founding partner at Circle Health, helping to grow the company from seed to IPO. Jones is also a board member of stock photo startup Picfair.

James, who will take up the role of COO at Lazard Venture and Growth Banking, is a well-respected equity research analyst and also recently left Numis (his LinkenIn says he is on gardening leave). He was previously an investment manager at Nomura in its technology VC team.

The other eight members of the team are said to be a mix of experienced entrepreneurs, bankers, engineers and data scientists.

In particular, I understand the Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team see untapped growth-stage opportunities beyond more “classic” VC sectors, such as consumer, SaaS and fintech, to also include AI, life sciences and clean tech — areas that requite deep tech and engineering expertise to evaluate and understand properly.

In other words, Lazard believes that intermediation in the form of an investment bank with the right team and connections can make the difference at Series B, C and beyond — both for investors and companies seeking capital.

Specifically, Lazard Venture and Growth Banking will look to identify the top 100 fastest-growing startups in Europe and connect them to 400 or so investors. These investors will be a mix of institutional funding, including venture capital and private equity, along with sovereign wealth funds, and high net worth individuals.

A large proportion of investors will be made up of corporates, too. I understand the thinking within the new Lazard division is that there in an abundance of corporate venture that remains untapped, with some of Europe’s largest corporates hoping to play catch up after historically underinvesting in R&D.

However, it isn’t simply a case of matching corporates (or their venture arms) with fast-growing startups. It is equally important to match the right corporates to the right startups — and again this is where the Lazard Venture and Growth Banking team believe it can add value.

Meanwhile, Lazard is also planning to host a three-day conference in April 2020 where it will bring leading companies and global investors together through a series of panel discussions and “bespoke investor and company meetings”.

 


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Where top VCs are investing in real estate and proptech (Part 2 of 2)

20:26 | 14 November

In part two of our survey that asked top VCs about the most exciting investment areas in real estate, we dig into responses from 10 leading real estate-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stages across real estate specific firms, corporate venture arms, and prominent generalist firms to share where they see opportunity in this sector. (See part one of our survey.)

In part two of our survey, we hear from:

Connie Chan, Andreessen Horowitz

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

While most people think about real estate tech from the transaction perspective, I believe that every single part of the real estate value chain is ripe for disruption. On the construction and home maintenance side, we are facing an aging population of contractors, electricians and plumbers. As fewer people enter the trade, this is a great opportunity for a startup. Rentals are offline and fragmented, with the majority of renters still paying their rent with cash or check.

As low-interest rates hold, many homeowners could be refinancing their homes, but aren’t simply because of the lack of financial education. People want to live in beautiful spaces, but everyone needs help with the design and remodeling process. Younger generations in particular are shocked and lost when they learn how many vendors and contractors they need to interface with for a simple bathroom or kitchen remodel. At the end of the day, we end up having to go back and forth with service providers in person because there are major information gaps online, just like in medicine. It’s hard for homeowners to know who to listen to and who to trust.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right? 

A third of my time is spent thinking about startups tackling real estate — this includes everything from construction to financing to rentals and home improvement. The amount of money spent in real estate is enormous, and the data and tools we use today are still based on insights from a decade ago.

When I polled colleagues on what they would do if a toilet broke, the answers ranged from: Google, YouTube, Yelp and “calling my mom.” We spend so much money on the way and place we live, and it’s nuts that there isn’t more technology to support it. Yes, we turn to Zillow or Redfin when searching for a home to buy or rent, but what about everything that happens before and after that?

The market is not over-heated in the least. However, I do believe investors are starting to treat real estate tech companies differently than tech-enabled real estate companies. In the past few years, that nuance was less clear, but recent market events have forced investors to focus more on gross margins and software’s ability to scale.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

I’d love to see more companies foster community. Decades ago we hung out with our neighbors, but today, many of us can’t even recall their names. Technology can help connect residents in a building, or neighbors down the street — mapping out our geography-based social networks. I’d also love to find more companies that are using different kinds of signals to assess risk, whether it’s to replace the credit score for a rental screening or to help someone qualify for a mortgage. Chinese fintech companies in particular have been experimenting with using other signals besides a credit score to evaluate how responsible someone might be.

Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers

If we think that the transportation industry is big, just wait until we realize the size of the real estate market!

Brendan Wallace, Fifth Wall

How has the real estate technology ecosystem changed in the last 3 years? 

When we started Fifth Wall three years ago, VCs and even prospective LPs would frequently ask us ‘What does real estate technology mean? Isn’t that very niche? How are you going to invest $212 million into real estate technology? ” At the time those felt like legitimate questions; in retrospect, they reflected that the venture ecosystem hadn’t truly appreciated the enormity of the opportunity in real estate technology. The fact that those questions felt valid only a few years ago tells the story of how the real estate technology ecosystem has evolved, expanded, and institutionalized.

In the last three years, real estate technology has arguably created more enterprise value and spawned more unicorns than any other single industry sector in venture capital. Fifth Wall was fortunate to make early investments in many of those transformative businesses, such as Blend, Hippo, Loggi, Lime, Opendoor and VTS. In the first half of 2019, $14 billion was invested into real estate technology from the VC community. Even though Fifth Wall’s newest $503M fund is the largest in the category, it nonetheless represents a very small percentage of total venture capital invested into real estate technology.

What spawned this growth in real estate tech over the last 3 years? 

It’s not surprising that technology for the real estate industry would become one of the largest and most attractive categories of venture capital. Real estate is the single largest industry in the U.S., yet historically has been one of the lowest spenders on IT. The industry was (and to a great extent still is) known as being a late adopter of technology solutions. I would characterize the last five years as being an ‘Age of Enlightenment’ for major real estate owners, operators, and developers: CIOs were hired for the first time, large IT budgets have been allocated and are growing, and almost every major real estate owner now recognizes that adoption of new technology is existentially critical to their future strategy.

In part, this realization explains the dramatic growth in the number of corporate investors in Fifth Wall: just two years ago Fifth Wall managed $212M from nine North American real estate corporates, today we manage over $1 billion invested by more than 50 corporate strategic partners from eleven countries. To put it simply, when the world’s largest industry suddenly decides to adopt technology, you can expect a lot of value to be created. And it’s only just begun.

Are generalist VCs investing more in real estate technology? 

Generalist VCs have been pouring capital into real estate technology companies, especially in the last few years. However, not all of those investments have performed well, and there’s usually one simple reason for that: distribution is absolutely everything for real estate technology startups. Getting large real estate corporates to adopt a new technology is often deterministic. In addition, generalist VC firms typically lack the deep real estate relationships and domain expertise to drive distribution and adoption of emerging technologies.

This is why Fifth Wall raised its capital from the largest partners and customers of the very technologies in which we’re investing. Fifth Wall wanted to be the connective platform to link new, emerging real estate technologies with the corporate partners that could serve as the commercial distribution lanes for them globally. A perfect example of this would be the strategic partnership and investment Fifth Wall orchestrated between homebuilder Lennar, one of Fifth Wall’s strategic investors, and Opendoor.

Are more real estate corporates forming their own venture capital arms?

There are more CVC (corporate venture capital) arms at real estate companies than there were three years ago, but they haven’t generally performed well, strategically or financially. Real estate organizations can be especially slow-moving and bureaucratic, making it difficult to attract great venture investment talent. CVC is inherently hard to execute well — in any industry — and for an ‘Old World’ industry such as real estate, CVC arms seem especially challenged.

Fifth Wall is increasingly finding that real estate owners are electing to become a part of the Fifth Wall consortium as we can now offer more distribution to any startup that any single corporate investor can offer investing on their own. Similarly, public market investors also have become critical of publicly-traded real estate corporates starting their own venture arms and have instead favored large real estate investment trusts (REITs) investing in consortium-based funds like Fifth Wall and others. I would expect this trend to continue as more real estate corporates are looking to partner with dedicated consortium-based real estate technology funds as opposed to maintaining their own CVC arm.

What trends are you most excited in Real Estate tech from an investing perspective?

We think there is a profound and exciting opportunity right now at the intersection of real estate technology and sustainability. Real estate owners are incredibly exposed to sustainability risks: the industry consumes 40% of all energy globally, emits 30% of total carbon dioxide, and uses 40% of all raw materials.

There is significant and growing regulatory pressure at both the local and federal levels to make all buildings net-zero carbon: look to Los Angeles and NYC’s recent legislation for two salient examples. Consumers and tenants of buildings are increasingly demanding heightened environmental standards for real estate assets. And finally, institutional investors are increasingly imposing sustainability requirements around their capital deployments.

Meeting the demands of stakeholders (regulators, tenants, and investors) is going to be an extraordinarily heavy lift for the real estate industry over the next decade, and effectively leveraging technology and innovation to drive solutions at scale is going to be crucial in order to meet these goals. Taken together, I believe the technologies to create more sustainable real estate assets represent a $1 trillion opportunity over the next decade.

 


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Where top VCs are investing in real estate and proptech (Part 1 of 2)

20:26 | 14 November

The multi-trillion dollar global real estate market is getting flipped on its head.

Business model innovation, data accessibility and the proliferation of mobile, SaaS and other cloud-native software have already given rise to a cohort of tech unicorns that sit amongst the world’s most influential real estate companies. Emerging technologies and growing capabilities across machine learning, 5G, IoT and more — coupled with fast-moving regulations and dramatic cost structure changes — have opened up opportunities for the next wave of innovation across a wide set of multi-billion dollar real estate verticals and sub-verticals.

And despite WeWork’s implosion garnering countless headlines in the real estate and technology worlds, venture dollars are continuing to spill into real estate tech (or proptech) companies at a rapidly increasing rate. Just upwards of $16 billion in venture capital has flowed into real estate-related startups in 2019 alone, according to data from Crunchbase and Pitchbook, with major fundraises happening across industrial, commercial, residential, and financial categories.

If we follow the money, it’s clear that more and more leading VCs are turning to real estate tech or proptech for ripe opportunities for juicy returns and disruption on a global scale. Given the countless subsectors where exciting new startups are popping up, we asked more than 20 leading real estate VCs who work at firms that span early to growth stages to share where they see opportunity within the colossal real estate category. For purposes of length and clarity, responses have been edited and split up into part one and part two of this survey (in no particular order). In part one of our survey, we hear from:

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Zach Aarons, MetaProp

What trends are you most excited in real estate tech from an investing perspective?

We like to track trends that play out in the broader real estate markets. Due to low interest rates and cap rate compression, real estate investors are now looking for yield through investments in non-traditional asset types. Industrial real estate has performed very well over the last few years, and we see a push toward workforce housing, medical real estate, and senior housing. We are looking at investing in technologies that benefit processes within these non-traditional asset classes.

How much time are you spending on real estate tech right now? Is the market under-heated, over-heated, or just right?

We spend 100% of our time on real estate tech (proptech). The market is definitely hot, but the addressable markets are enormous and adoption is still relatively low and accelerating. We believe that now is a good time to invest in early-stage proptech, provided it’s done prudently.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t?

We would love to see more startups in the material sciences sector. Innovations like steel, bricks, timber, glass and reinforced concrete are hardly new, and they are still the predominant building materials of today. There have been minor advances like cross-laminated timber; however, we are looking for fundamentally new materials to bring into the building trades.

Plus any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers.

Proptech is the most fun sector in the world. No other sector shares the complexities and idiosyncrasies of technology that has to be applied to the built world. We are very lucky we get to do what we do.

Pete Flint, NFX

Real estate is the biggest asset class in the world by far, but the products available and service proposition surrounding it are still in the early stages of tech adoption. I see at least three major areas of opportunity for startups in real estate tech.

First is the real estate transaction process. Starting around 2005, companies like Trulia and Zillow, transformed the consumer research experience and home buyers increasingly began their search online. But the transaction itself spanning brokerage, financing and closing remains largely analog, complicated and inefficient. There’s an opportunity for startups to provide innovative solutions to help simplify and digitize the transaction process. Example companies in this area are Ribbon and Modus.

Second is the rise of alternative (or professionalized) living arrangements. I see a big opportunity for startups with a strong technology component to provide solutions for the mismatch between the way consumers want to live today and the aging housing supply that was built for a previous era with different needs and demographics. Companies like Lyric and Zeus are building alternative living solutions with a vertically-integrated short term rental strategy, while co-living startups are providing long-term rentals with value-added services.

Third is spend around the home. The large costs in time, effort, and money of designing, building, and maintaining a home provide an opportunity for tech-enabled solutions in construction, home management, and home maintenance. For example, Setter is providing a better consumer experience for requesting home maintenance services while Constru is bringing AI and machine vision to lower prices and reduce schedule overrun on construction sites. I see many more opportunities for startups like these in this space.

While these are big opportunities, the challenge with investing in real estate tech is to find startups with teams that not only have world-class product and software capabilities, but also world-class knowledge of finance, real estate, and operations. And with the recent WeWork debacle, we have seen a renewed emphasis on the failings of low-margin businesses. So for PropTech startups that are looking for funding today, there’s an increased need to demonstrate good unit economics and long-term margin potential.

Ryan Freedman, Corigin Ventures

At a high level, I believe we are still in the early innings of proptech – maybe 3rd or 4th inning. I always like to make the comparison to fintech. Technically speaking, real estate is a larger asset class than financial services. Between 2013-2017, fintech had cumulative funding of $62.4B vs. proptech’s $10.1B. Even though proptech has ramped up the last few years, we still have a long way to go prior to catching up. In addition, you may recall that PropTech used to be a “sub-sector” of fintech prior to being its own behemoth category. There are several subsectors within PropTech today, that I think a few years from now will be their own categories – construction tech is one of those.

From an investment perspective, we’re spending a lot of time in construction tech right now. From a macro standpoint, we feel there is a supply-demand mismatch with respect to the size of the market and the amount of funding in the space. Construction accounts for ~$10T annual spend globally and employs ~7% of the global workforce. In addition, it’s one of the most antiquated industries in the world. This summer we spent a ton of time digging into the space and have now made a handful of investments. We’re big believers of founder-market-fit, and this category in particular requires category expertise to navigate a very old-school industry.

Another area we’re spending time in is broker-tech. We’ve seen the “tech-enabled brokerage” model be effective in a ton of different industries including PropTech. A lot of investors believe this space is “crowded” – which is true in some sub-sectors (i.e. residential) – but when you look closely within the commercial real estate industry, we believe there is a massive opportunity to disrupt traditional real estate capital markets firms.

 


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Yodel.io is a digital receptionist for SMBs taking calls

12:00 | 14 November

Yodel.io, an Austria-founded startup that’s developed a “digital receptionist” to help SMBs and other small teams handle in and outbound phone-calls, has picked up $1 million in “pre-seed” funding. It brings total funding to just over $1.8 million.

Backing this round is EXF Alpha, the fund of the European Super Angels Club, and various other unnamed European angel investors. This investment will be used to establish a New York office, in addition to the startup’s existing presence in Vienna, London and San Francisco.

In development since 2016 and a Seedcamp alumni, Yodel’s tech acts as a digital phone receptionist that plugs into popular team chat applications such as Slack, Zapier, and Drift to help SMBs handle calls more efficiently. The idea is to provide these small and medium-sized businesses with call-handling technology more akin to that typically available to larger enterprises but at a price they can afford.

It is similar thinking to Google’s recently launched CallJoy, although Yodel argues its product is better and says it is already used by over 2,000 SMBs in 30 languages across 47 countries.

Yodel and CallJoy both offer the ability to transcribe calls, manage inbounds through “human-like” answering, log calls, tag calls and record calls.

However, in addition, Yodel says its tech also allows for customisable canned responses, and that its AI is able to ask for a reason for the call and then process calls accordingly. Other features include call conferencing, and the ability to send and receive SMS messages.

“SMBs are stuck with old school phone systems that lack flexibility,” explain two of Yodel’s co-founders, Nina Hödlmayr and Mike Heininger, in an email. “At the same time, customers of SMBs don’t receive the support they expect via the phone, they want the processes and systems of the multinationals, without considering the backend costs.

The pair argue that by using Yodel, less well-resourced companies can offer voice calls for customers, which they argue is still the most direct channel. “This is an effective way of increasing sales and having fewer unsatisfied customers,” they tell TechCrunch.

Yodel.io Slack integration: waiting inbound call

“The caller receives a better experience by being greeted from a digital voice assistant and getting forwarded to the right team member. The company views all information in one place without needing to switch tools. This is also a main benefit for distributed and modern teams. Each bit of information is shared and can be collaborated on which improves decisions and overall internal knowledge”.

Operating a typical SaaS model, Yodel charges per “seat” per month. This includes a phone number per user, unlimited inbound minutes and call credit for outbound calls. There are additional fees for more outbound minutes and additional phone numbers. Depending on features the subscription is with $25 per month or $35 per month.

 


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Plum, the ‘AI’ money management app, raises $3M more and comes to Android

12:00 | 13 November

Plum, the U.K.-based “AI assistant” to help you manage your money and save more, has raised $3 million in additional funding — money it plans to use for further growth, including European expansion.

The London company has also quietly launched its app for Android phones, adding to an existing iOS app and Facebook Messenger chatbot.

Backing this round — which is essentially a second tranche to Plum’s earlier $4.5 million raise in the summer — is EBRB, and VentureFriends, both existing investors. Christian Faes, founder and CEO of LendInvest has also participated

It brings the fintech startup’s total funding to $9.3 million since being founded by early TransferWise employee Victor Trokoudes, and Alex Michael in 2016.

The new investment is said to come at the end of a year of “rapid expansion for Plum” in both London and Athens, including growing the team to 31 employees. Senior hires include Max Mawby, Plum’s Head of Behavioural Science, who previously worked for the U.K. government and ran the fintech sector-focused Behavioural Insights Team.

In a call, Trokoudes told me that take up for Plum’s iOS app has been high and Android is also following a similar trajectory, proof that the startup’s AI assistant has perhaps outgrown its chatbook and Facebook Messenger beginnings (competitor Cleo has also released dedicated iOS and Android apps as an alternative to Facebook Messenger).

He also says Plum now has 650,000 registered users, of which around 70% are active monthly. In recent user feedback sessions conducted by the startup, the biggest draw to the app is that it’s aim of changing financial behaviour to help people save more appears to be working.

When users stick around using Plum for long enough, Trokoudes says they are surprised (and delighted) that it actually works.

Like similar apps, Plum’s “artificial intelligence” deems what you can afford to save by analysing your bank transactions. It then puts money away each month in the form of round-ups and/or regular savings.

You can open an ISA investment account and invest based on themes, such as only in “ethical companies” or technology. Another related feature is “Splitter,” which, as the name suggests, lets you split your automatic savings between Plum savings and investments, selecting the percentage amounts to go into each pot from 0-100%.

Trokoudes says that Plum recently launched two new “intelligent” saving rules: the 52 Week Challenge, which aims to help you save £1367 over a year; and the Rainy Day Rule, which puts aside money whenever it rains (yes, really!).

“Saving rules use automation to help people save more effectively without overloading them with information,” adds the Plum founder in a statement. “We have good evidence that this approach works: our automated round-ups feature, that we launched earlier this year has become a firm favourite among Plum users, boosting their savings by 50% on average”.

Meanwhile, another one of Plum’s competitors, Chip recently raised £3.8 million in equity crowdfunding on Crowdcube. It was part of a round targeting $7.3 million in total, although it isn’t clear if all of that has closed yet (last time I checked the company had so far secured $5 million). Noteworthy, the equity crowdfund gave Chip a pre-money valuation of £36.78 million based on “over 153,000” accounts opened.

 


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Lawyers hate timekeeping. Ping raises $13M to fix it with AI

16:33 | 12 November

Counting billable time in six minute increments is the most annoying part of being a lawyer. It’s a distracting waste. It leads law firms to conservatively under-bill. And it leaves lawyers stuck manually filling out timesheets after a long day when they want to go home to their families.

Life is already short, as Ping CEO and co-founder Ryan Alshak knows too well. The former lawyer spent years caring for his mother as she battled a brain tumor before her passing. “One minute laughing with her was worth a million doing anything else” he tells me. “I became obsessed with the idea that we spend too much of our lives on things we have no need to do — especially at work.”

That’s motivated him as he’s built his startup Ping, which uses artificial intelligence to automatically track lawyers’ work and fill out timesheets for them. There’s a massive opportunity to eliminate a core cause of burnout, lift law firm revenue by around 10%, and give them fresh insights into labor allocation.

Ping co-founder and CEO Ryan Alshak. Image Credit: Margot Duane

That’s why today Ping is announcing a $13.2 million Series A led by Upfront Ventures, along with BoxGroup, First Round, Initialized, and Ulu Ventures. Adding to Ping’s quiet $3.7 million seed led by First Round last year, the startup will spend the cash to scale up enterprise distribution and become the new timekeeping standard.

I was a corporate litigator at Manatt Phelps down in LA and joke that I was voted the world’s worst timekeeper” Alshak tells me. “I could either get better at doing something I dreaded or I could try and build technology that did it for me.”

The promise of eliminating the hassle could make any lawyer who hears about Ping an advocate for the firm buying the startup’s software, like how Dropbox grew as workers demanded easier file sharing. “I’ve experienced first-hand the grind of filling out timesheets” writes Initialized partner and former attorney Alda Leu Dennis. “Ping takes away the drudgery of manual timekeeping and gives lawyers back all those precious hours.”

Traditionally, lawyers have to keep track of their time by themselves down to the tenth of an hour — reviewing documents for the Johnson case, preparing a motion to dismiss for the Lee case, a client phone call for Sriram case. There are timesheets built into legal software suites like MyCase, legal billing software like Timesolv, and one-off tools like Time Miner and iTimeKeep. They typically offer timers that lawyers can manually start and stop on different devices, with some providing tracking of scheduled appointments, call and text logging, and integration with billing systems.

Ping goes a big step further. It uses AI and machine learning to figure out whether an activity is billable, for which client, a description of the activity, and its codification beyond just how long it lasted. Instead of merely filling in the minutes, it completes all the logs automatically with entries like “Writing up a deposition – Jenkins Case – 18 minutes”. Then it presents the timesheet to the user for review before the send it to billing.

The big challenge now for Alshak and the team he’s assembled is to grow up. They need to go from cat-in-sunglasses logo Ping to mature wordmark Ping.  “We have to graduate from being a startup to being an enterprise software company” the CEO tells meThat means learning to sell to C-suites and IT teams, rather than just build solid product. In the relationship-driven world of law, that’s a very different skill set. Ping will have to convince clients it’s worth switching to not just for the time savings and revenue boost, but for deep data on how they could run a more efficient firm.

Along the way, Ping has to avoid any embarrassing data breaches or concerns about how its scanning technology could violate attorney-client privilege. If it can win this lucrative first business in legal, it could barge into the consulting and accounting verticals next to grow truly huge.

With eager customers, a massive market, a weak status quo, and a driven founder, Ping just needs to avoid getting in over its heads with all its new cash. Spent well, the startup could leap ahead of the less tech-savvy competition.

Alshak seems determined to get it right. “We have an opportunity to build a company that gives people back their most valuable resource — time — to spend more time with their loved ones because they spent less time working” he tells me. “My mom will live forever because she taught me the value of time. I am deeply motivated to build something that lasts . . . and do so in her name.”

 


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PacketAI predicts IT incidents by parsing large event data sets

12:20 | 12 November

Meet PacketAI, a French startup that wants to alert you when there’s something wrong with your app or service. The company uses machine learning to parse raw event data and find out if there’s anything wrong.

PacketAI can intercept incidents at many different levels. For instance, the service can tell you if your users can’t write something on your database or if there’s something wrong with your compute layer.

PacketAI doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. The startup is well aware that there are many monitoring tools our there — Datadog, Splunk and Dynatrace for instance.

“Those tools are primarily designed for humans so that they can understand information delivered by machines,” co-founder and CEO Hardik Thakkar told me.

PacketAI integrates directly with the APIs of Datadog, Splunk or Dynatrace to analyze raw event data in real time. Instead of scrolling through thousands of lines, you can get an alert that tells you that bank transfers take a a lot more time than usual to go through for instance.

Eventually, you should be able to repair your problem much more quickly, which could potentially improve your revenue.

For now, the startup creates a machine learning model for each client. But the plan is to create a model for each vertical as soon as you have four or five companies in the same space using PacketAI. You could imagine a model for banking companies, a model for telecom companies, etc.

The startup already raised $2.3 million (€2.1 million) from Aster Capital, BNP Paribas Developpement, Entrepreneur First and SGPA.

PacketAI is already working with some clients on the first implementations of its product. The service will be available to anyone in early 2020. Pricing varies depending on the number of nodes (any physical or virtual network element) you want to monitor using PacketAI.

 


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Angular Ventures outs $41M seed fund for European and Israeli enterprise and ‘deep tech’ startups

11:00 | 12 November

Angular Ventures, the early-stage enterprise and “deep tech”-focused VC firm founded by former DFJ Esprit partner Gil Dibner, is announcing the closing of its debut fund at $41 million.

Targeting startups in Europe and Israel, Angular Ventures has been operating in so-called “stealth mode” for almost two years, seeing its portfolio grow to 12 companies. The VC typically invests between $250,000 and $1.5 million, from writing a startup’s first cheque to Series A. It says it aims to do five-seven new investments per year.

Companies backed by Angular include “service intelligence” startup Aquant.io, HR workplace misconduct platform Vault, nano-tech security technology provider Dust Identity (also backed by Kleiner Perkins) and food supply chain optimization company Trellis.

Notably, Dibner is Angular Ventures’ sole general partner. Prior to founding Angular Ventures, he was most recently running an angel syndicate on AngelList, although his venture career goes back much further.

Prior to leading the syndicate, Dibner was a partner at London-based venture capital firm DFJ Esprit, which he departed in March 2015. Before that he was a principal at Index Ventures, also in London, and had earlier spells at Israeli VCs Gemini Israel Ventures and Genesis Partners, both in Tel Aviv.

Dibner says he wanted to “re-imagine” early-seed venture capital in Europe and Israel by building what he describes as a sector-focused firm, and removing geographical boundaries by investing in both Europe and Israel, and establishing a U.S. presence to support portfolio startups with global expansion.

Whether or not you think that is particularly unique, you’re mileage may vary, but there is no doubt Dibner has a decent investment track record in the enterprise space and beyond, either way.

Throughout his career to date, Dibner says he has backed 40 companies. Breaking this down further: 28 have raised capital from U.S.-based VC firms or exited to U.S.-based acquirers. In fact, he’s seen eight exits overall, and two of Dibner’s investments — JFrog and SiSense — have reached “unicorn” status, i.e. a valuation of $1 billion or more.

Despite his track record, Dibner says it took four years to finally close this fund, which has given him even more empathy for founders during fundraising.

“It took nearly four years to get from concept to a first close, and although we were ultimately significantly oversubscribed, I had to hear a lot of ‘nos’ to get this done,” he tells TechCrunch. “There are a lot of differences between raising a fund and raising money for a company, but experience has given me even more empathy with founders who are often enduring very difficult fundraising pathways. The most ambitious ideas usually have the most difficult fundraising.”

It is also probably worth noting that all of Angular’s LPs are private/commercial — in other words, no taxpayer money is at stake here, unlike a plethora of European VC funds. And whilst Dibner is the sole GP, he says he’s working with a team of advisors helping to source deals, provide due diligence and support portfolio companies.

They include: Fred Simon, founder of JFrog; Eldad Farkash, founder of SiSense and Firebolt, an Angular portfolio company; Guy Poreh, former EVP New Media at BBDO, who led Wix’s U.S. market launch and founded Playground; Jerry Dischler, who leads product for Google search and YouTube search; and Phil Wickham, who founded Sozo Ventures and is the chairman of the Kauffman Fellows Program.

 


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Balderton Capital raises new $400M fund to back European tech startups at Series A

03:00 | 12 November

Balderton Capital, one of the so-called “big four” early-stage VC firms in London (the others being Accel, Atomico and Index), has raised a new $400 million fund to continue backing European tech startups at Series A.

Dealroom recently released a report that pegged Balderton as the most active Series A investor in Europe (between 2014-2018), and in many ways this new fund is a continuation, and business as usual for the firm. It is also roughly the same size as the VC’s last Series A fund, which it closed in 2017 at $375 million.

That’s not to be confused with Balderton’s other recently launched “secondary” fund, which is dedicated to buying equity stakes from early shareholders in European-founded “high-growth, scale-up” technology companies. The move essentially formalised the secondary share dealing that already happens — typically as part of a Series C or other later rounds — which often sees founders take some money off the table so they can improve their own financial situation and won’t be tempted to sell their company too soon, but also gives early investors a way out so they can begin the cycle all over again.

Meanwhile, Balderton says the new Series A fund is being launched against a backdrop of “unprecedented momentum” within the European tech ecosystem. The VC notes that the number of Series A rounds in Europe per year has quadrupled since 2012, with the total amount of VC funding going into European startups hitting record highs last year — from €11.5 billion in 2014 to a chunky €24.6 billion in 2018.

That, together with the sheer number of new funds that have launched over the last 12 months — and three I’m covering this week — leads me to wonder out loud if tech, and Europe in particular, has entered a bubble.

“I don’t think we are,” Balderton Partner Suranga Chandratillake tells me during a call, before acknowledging that it is often hard to know if you are in a bubble if you are actually in one. “If you look at the public markets, the valuations around tech companies, while they are high, I would argue that in many cases they are justifiable when you look at the profitability and the growth rate of those businesses, especially things like enterprise software. But I think it’s harder when you get into businesses where they are more one-off… [where] we don’t necessarily know exactly how to value those long term.”

On Europe specifically, Chandratillake points out that some European tech hubs are more heated than others and that sentiment can vary considerably per geography. “As you get to more and more the local level, of course, you can experience what feel like sort of comparative bubbles. So, you know, maybe London was expensive two years ago, and France is expensive right now at Series A or whatever, but I don’t think those things really matter in the long run, because ultimately they iron out as long as the employee valuations are sensible. And as an investor, you’re paying attention to that stuff when you’re going to make an investment.”

One rumour within London VC is there are firms that have felt pressured to do follow-on investments in portfolio companies they otherwise might not have during cooler times, for fear of signalling to the market not just that a company isn’t doing well but that the VC firm itself isn’t as founder-friendly as competing VCs. How does Balderton think about signaling?

“Signaling is a massive deal [in venture capital],” says Chandratillake. “And actually, this is an area where, you know, we think we have a fairly strong position, because for over 10 years now we have focused almost entirely on Series A… and we are very open about that.”

He says that unlike other Series A VCs that invest at Series B or Series C, too, and also quite often dabble in seed, companies backed by Balderton shouldn’t expect the firm to “lead or be a major part of your Series B.”

“Of course, we’ll help, we’re going to do some of our pro-rata or maybe all of our pro-rata to try and protect some of our ownership, all those sorts of rational things we do. But we’re not raising a fund which allows us to be a big investor in your Series B and your C and your D and so on. I think as long as you’re really open with entrepreneurs about that early, they totally get that and they understand why it works economically for us and why it’s a good thing.

“Then if you do that for a long enough period of time, as we have, and stick to that — so you don’t do weird things like, you know, say that, but then on the other hand with the most interesting company, you try to bully your way into more of a Series B or whatever, then the ecosystem overall starts to realise… then the signal problem goes away.”

With regards to future investments, Chandratillake says Balderton will continue to invest all over Europe across any sector where “information technology” is being leveraged and creating value.

In the fund prior to last, for example, fintech was a major focus, backing companies like Revolut and Nutmeg, but more recently the VC has been investing more in health tech, where computer science is helping life science solve problems faster or cheaper.

“I think that there will be more of that,” says Chandratillake. “There’s a lot more to be done in this health tech space, both at the patient level, but also actually a lot of really interesting things behind the scenes that will help health systems operate more efficiently and use technology in interesting ways. It’s a really interesting area for Europe, because we have, you know, within the continent, a plethora of different health systems — from almost fully private systems through to obviously entirely state single payer systems like the NHS. It’s a great place to experiment with different models. It’s also of course, as a continent, home to some of the most important pharmaceutical companies [in the world].”

 


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