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Are scooter startups really worth billions?

20:05 | 23 June

It’s been hard to miss the scooter startup wars opening fresh, techno-fueled rifts in Valley society in recent months. Another flavor of ride-sharing steed which sprouted seemingly overnight to clutter up sidewalks — drawing rapid-fire ire from city regulators apparently far more forgiving of traffic congestion if it’s delivered in the traditional, car-shaped capsule.

Even in their best, most-groomed PR shots, the dockless carelessness of these slimline electrified scooters hums with an air of insouciance and privilege. As if to say: Why yes, we turned a kids’ toy into a battery-powered kidult transporter — what u gonna do about it?

An earlier batch of electric scooter sharing startups — offering full-fat, on-road mopeds that most definitely do need a license to ride (and, unless you’re crazy, a helmet for your head) — just can’t compete with that. Last mile does not haul.

But a short-walk replacement tool that’s so seamlessly manhandled is also of course easily vandalized. Or misappropriated. Or both. And there have been a plethora of scooter dismemberment/kidnap horror stories coming out of California, judging by reports from the scooter wars front line. Hanging scooters in trees is presumably a protest thing.

Scooter brand Lime struck an especially tone-deaf tech note trying to fix this problem after an update added a security alarm  that bellowed robotic threats to call the cops on anyone who fumbled to unlock them. Safe to say, littering abusive scooters in public spaces isn’t a way to win friends and influence people.

Even when functioning ‘correctly’, i.e. as intended, scooter rides can ooze a kind of brash entitlement. The sweatless convenience looks like it might be mostly enabling another advance in tech-fueled douche behavior as a t-shirt wearing alpha nerd zips past barking into AirPods and inhaling a takeaway latte while cutting up the patience of pedestrians.

None of this fast-seeded societal friction has put the brakes on e-scooter startup momentum, though. Au contraire. They’ve been raising massive amounts of investment on rapidly inflating valuations ($2BN is the latest valuation for Bird).

But buying lots of e-scooters and leaving them at the mercy of human whim is an expensive business to try scaling. Hence big funding rounds are necessary if you’re going to replace all the canal-dunked duds and keep scooting fast enough for the competition.

At the same time, there isn’t a great deal to differentiate one e-scooter experience over another — beyond price and proximity. Branding might do it but then you have to scramble even harder and faster to create a slick experience and inflate a brand that sticks. (And it goes without saying that a scooter sticky with fecal-matter is absolutely not that.)

The still fledgling startups are certainly scrambling to scale, with some also already pushing into international markets. Lime just scattered ~200 e-scooters in Paris, for example. It’s also been testing the waters more quietly in Zurich. While Bird has its beady eye on European territory too.

The idea underpinning some very obese valuations for these fledgling startups is that scooters will be a key piece of a reworked, multi-modal transport mix for urban mobility, fueled by app-based convenience and city buy-in to greener transport options with emissions-free benefits. (Albeit scooters’ greenness depends on what they’re displacing; Great if it’s gas-guzzling cars, less compelling if it’s people walking or peddling.)

And while investors are buying in to the vision that lots of city dwellers are going to be scooting the last mile in future, and betting big on sizable value being captured by a few plucky scooter startups — more than half a billion dollars has been funneled into just two of these slimline scooter brands, Bird and Lime, since February — there are skeptical notes being sounded too.

Asking whether the scooter model really justifies such huge raises and heady valuations. Wondering if it isn’t a bit crazy for a fledgling Bird to be 2x a unicorn already.

Shared bike and scooter fleets are paving the way to a revolution in urban mobility but will only capture little value in the long term. Investors are highly overestimating the virtue of these businesses.

— Thibaud Elziere (@tiboel)

The bear case for these slimline e-scooters says they’re really only fixing a pretty limited urban mobility problem. Too spindly and unsafe to go the distance, too sedate of pace (and challenged for sidewalk space) to feel worthwhile if you don’t have far to go anyway. And of course you’re not going to be able to cart your kids and/or much baggage on a stand-up two wheeler. So they’re useless for families.

Meanwhile scooter invasions are illegal in some places and, where they are possible, are fast inviting public and regulatory frisson and friction — by contributing to congestion and peril on already crowded pavements.

After taking one of Lime’s just-landed e-scooters for a spin in Paris this week, Willy Braun, VC at early stage European fund Daphni, came away unimpressed. “I didn’t feel I was really saving time in a short distance, since there is always many people in our narrow sidewalks,” he tells us. “And it isn’t comfortable enough for me to imagine a longer distance. Also it’s quite expensive ($1 per use and $.15/min).

“Lastly: Before renting it I read two news media that told me I had to use it only on the sidewalks and they tell us that we should only use it on the road during the onboarding — and that wearing an helmet is mandatory without providing it). As a comparison, I’d rather use e-bikes (or emoto-bikes) for longer journey without hesitation.”

“Give us Jump instead of Lime!” he adds, namechecking the electric bike startup that’s been lodged under Uber’s umbrella since April, adding a greener string to its urban mobility bow — and which is also heading over to Europe as part of the ride-hailing giant’s ongoing efforts to revitalize its regionally battered brand.

“Uber stands ready to help address some of the biggest challenges facing German cities: tackling air pollution, reducing congestion and increasing access to cleaner transportation solutions,” said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wheeling a bright red Jump bike on stage at the Noah conference in Berlin earlier this month. Uber’s Jump e-bikes will launch in Germany this summer.

E-bikes do seem to offer more urban mobility versatility than e-scooters. Though a scooter is arguably a more accessible type of wheeled steed vs a bike, given you can just stand on it and be moved.

But in Europe’s dense and dynamic urban environments — which, unlike the US, tend to be replete with public transit options (typically at a spectrum of price-points) — individual transport choices tend to be based firstly on economics. After which it’s essentially a matter of personal taste and/or the weather.

Urban transport horses for courses — depending on your risk, convenience and comfort thresholds, thanks to a publicly funded luxury of choice. So scooters have loads of already embedded competition.

TechCrunch’s resident Parisienne, Romain Dillet — a regular user of on-demand bike services in the city (of which there are many), and prior to that the city’s own dock-based bike rental scheme — also went for a test spin on a Lime scooter this week. And also came away feeling underwhelmed.

“This is bad,” he said after his ride. “It’s slow and you need to brake constantly. BUT the worst part is that it feels waaaaaay more dangerous than a bike. Basically you can’t brake abruptly because you’re just standing there.”

Index Venture’s Martin Mignot was also in Paris this week and he took the chance to take a Lime scooter for a spin too — checking out the competition in his case, given the European VC firm is a Bird backer. So what did he think?

“The experience is pretty cool. It’s slightly faster than a bike, there’s no sweating. The weather was just amazing and very hot in Paris so it was pretty amazing in terms of speed and lack of effort,” he says, rolling out the positively spun, vested view on scooter sharing. “Especially going up hill to go to Gare du Nord.

“And the lack of friction — just to get on board and get started. So in general I think it’s a great experience and I think it feels a really interesting niche between walking and on-demand bikes… In Paris you’ve also got the mopeds. So that kind of ‘in between offering’. I think there’s a big market there. I think it’s going to work pretty well in Paris.”

Mignot is a tad disparaging about the quality of Lime’s scooters vs the model being deployed by Bird — a scooter model he also personally owns. But again, as you’d expect given his vested interests.

“Obviously I’m biased but I would say that the Xiaomi scooter/Ninebot scooter is higher quality than the one that Lime are using,” he tells us. “I thought that the Lime one, the handlebar is a little bit too high. The braking is a little bit too soft. Maybe it was the one I used, I don’t know.”

Talking generally about scooter startups, he says investors’ excitement boils down to trip frequency — thanks exactly to journeys being these itty-bitty last mile links.

But it’s also then about the potential for all that last mile hopping to be a shortcut for winning a prized slot on smartphone users’ homescreens — and thus the underlying game being played looks like a jockeying for prime position in the urban mobility race.

Lime, for example, started out with bike rentals before jumping into scooters and going multi-modal. So scooter sharing starts to look like a strategy for mobility startups to scoot to the top of the attention foodchain — where they’re then positioned to offer a full mix and capture more value.

So really scooters might mostly be a tool for catching people’s app attention. Think of that next time you see one lying on a sidewalk.

“What’s very interesting if you look at the trip distribution, most of the trips are short. So the vast majority of trips if you’re walking, obviously, are less than three miles. So that’s actually where the bulk of the mobility happens. And scooters play really well in that field. So in terms of sheer number of trips I think it’s going to dwarf any other type of transportation. And especially ride-hailing,” says Mignot.

“If you look at how often do people use Uber or Lyft or Taxify… it’s going to be much less frequent than the scooter users. And I think that’s what makes it such an interesting asset… The frequency will be much higher — and so the apps that power the scooters will tend to be on the homescreen. And kind of on top of the foodchain, so to speak. So I think that’s what makes it super interesting.”

Scooters also get a big investor tick on merit of the lack of friction standing in the way of riding vs other available urban options such as bikes (or, well, non-electric scooters, skateboards, roller blades, public transport, and so on and on) — in both onboarding (getting going) and propulsion (i.e. the lack of sweat required to ride) terms.

“That’s what’s so brilliant with these devices, you just snap the QR code and off you go,” he says. “The difference with bikes is that you don’t have to produce any effort. I think there are cases where obviously bikes are better. But I think there are a lot of cases where people will want something where you don’t sweat.

“Where you don’t wrinkle your clothes. Which goes a little bit faster. Without going all the way to the moped experience where you need to put the helmet, which is a bit more dangerous, which a lot of people, especially women, are not super familiar with. So I think what’s exciting with scooters as a form factor is it’s actually very mainstream.

“Anyone can ride them. It’s very simple to manoeuvre. It’s not super fast, it’s not too dangerous. It doesn’t require any muscular effort — so for older people or for people who just don’t want to sweat because they’re going to a meeting or something. It’s just a fantastic option.”

Index has also invested in an e-bike startup (Cowboy) and the firm is fully signed up to the notion that urban mobility will be multimodal. So if e-scooters valuations are a bit overcooked Index is not going to be too concerned. People in cities are clearly going to be riding something. And backing a mix is a smart way to hedge the risk of any one option ending up more passing fad than staple urban steed.

Mostly Index is betting that people will keep on riding robotic horses for urban courses. And whatever they ride it’s a fairly safe bet that an app is going to be involved in the process of finding (docklessness is therefore another attention play) or unlocking (scan that QR code!) the mobility device — opening up the possibility that a single app could house multiple mobility options and thus capture more overall value.

“It’s not a one-size fits all. They’re all complementing each other,” says Mignot of the urban mobility options in play. “I would say e-bikes are probably a little bit more great for little bit longer trips because you’re sitting down. But again it takes a little bit longer, because you have to adjust the saddle, you need to start peddling. There’s a bit more friction both on the onboading and on the riding. But they’re a bit better for slightly longer distances. I would say for shorter distances there’s nothing better than the scooter.”

He also points out that scooters are both cheaper and less bulky than e-bikes. And because they take up less street space they can — at least in theory — be more densely stacked, thereby generating the claimed convenience by having them sitting near enough to convince someone not to bother walking 10 minutes to the café or gym — and just scoot instead. So scooters’ slimline physique is also especially exciting to investors. (Even if, ironically, it’s being deployed to urge people to walk less.)

“I think we will end up with more density of scooters. Which is super important,” he continues. “People will, in the end, tend to take the vehicle that they can find where they are. And I think it’s more likely, eventually, that they will get a scooter than an e-bike. Just simply because they take less space and they are less expensive.”

But why wouldn’t people who do get won over to the sweatless perks of last mile scooting just buy and own their own ride — rather than shelling out on an ongoing basis to share?

Unlike bikes, scooters are mobile enough to be picked up and moved around fairly easily. Which means they can go with you into your home, office, even a restaurant — disruptively reducing theft risk. Whereas talk to any bike owner and they’ll almost invariably have at least one tale of theft woe, which is a key part of what makes bike sharing so attractive: It erases theft worry.

Add to that, you can find e-scooters on sale in European electronics shops for as little as €140. So if you’re going to be a regular scooterer, the purely economic argument to just own your own looks pretty compelling.

And people zipping around on e-scooters is a pretty common sight in another dense European city, Barcelona, which has very scooter-friendly weather but no scooter startups (yet). But unless it’s a tourist weaving along the seafront most of these riders are not shared: People just popped into their local electronics shop and walked out with a scooter in a box.

So the rides aren’t generating repeat revenue for anyone except the electricity companies.

 

Asked why people who do want to scoot won’t just buy, rather than rent Mignot talks up the hassle of ownership — undermined slightly by the fact he is also a scooter owner (despite the claimed faff from problems such as frequent flat tires and the chore of the nightly charge).

“The thing you notice very rapidly: There are two things, one is the maintenance,” he says. “The models that exist today are not super robust. Maybe in a very flat, very smooth roads, maybe Santa Monica, maybe it’s a little bit less true but I would say in Europe the maintenance that is required is fairly high… I have to do something on mine every week.

“The other thing is it takes a little bit of space. If you have to bring it to a restaurant or whatever type of crowded place, a movie theatre or wherever you’re going, to an office, to a meeting room, it’s a little bit on the heavy side, and it’s a little bit inconvenient. So certainly some people will buy them… But I also think that there are a lot of cases where you’d rather have it just on-demand.”

Unlike Mignot and Index, Tom Bradley, of UK focused VC firm Oxford Capital, is not so convinced by the on-demand scooter craze.

The firm has not made any e-scooter investments itself, though mobility is a “core theme”, with the portfolio including an on-demand coach travel startup (Sn-ap), and technology plays such as Morpheus Labs (machine learning for driverless cars) and UltraSoc (complex circuits for automotive parts, which sells to the likes of Tesla).

But it’s just not been sold on scooter startups. Bradley describes it as an “open question” whether scooters end up being “an important part of how people move around the cities of the future”. He also points to theft problems with dockless bike share schemes that have not played out well in the UK.

“We’re not convinced that this is a fundamental part of the picture,” he says of scooter sharing. “It may be a part of the picture but I personally am not yet convinced that it’s as big a part of the picture that people seem to be prepared to pay for.”

“I keep thinking of the Segway example,” he adds. “It’s an absolutely delightful product. It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant. In a way that these electric scooters are not. But obviously it was much more expensive. And it made people feel a bit weird. But it was supposed to be the answer — and it’s not the answer. Before its time, perhaps.”

Of course he also accepts that capital is “being used as a weapon”, as he puts it, to scoot full-pelt towards a future where shared electric scooters are the norm on city streets by waging a “marketing war” to get there.

“Venture capital valuations are what someone is prepared to pay. And in this case people are valuing potential rather than valuing the business… so the valuations [of Bird and Lime] are being driven more than anything by the amount of money being raised,” he says. “So you decide a rule of thumb about what is acceptable dilution, and if you’re going to raise $400M or whatever then the valuation’s got to be somewhere between $1.6BN and $2BN to make that sort of raise make sense — and leave enough equity for the previous investors and founders. So there’s an element of this where the valuations are being driven by the amount of capital being raised.”

Oxford Capital’s bearish view on scooter sharing is also bounded by the fund only investing in UK-based startups. And while Bradley says it sees lots of local mobility strengths — especially in the automotive market — he admits it’s more of a mental leap to imagine a world leading scooter startup sprouting from the country’s green and pleasant lands. Not least because it’s not legal to use them on UK public roads or pavements.

“If you look at places like Amsterdam, Berlin, they’re sort of built for bikes. London’s getting towards being built for bikes… Cycling’s been one of the big success stories in London. Is [scooter sharing] going to replace cycling? I don’t know. Not so convinced… It’s obviously easy for anyone to get on and off these things, young and old. So that’s good, it’s inclusive. But it feels a little bit like a solution looking for a problem, the sorts of journeys people talk about for these things — on campus, short urban journeys. A lot of these are walkable or cycle journeys in a lot of cities. So is there a mass need?

“Is this Segway 2 or is this bike hire 2… it’s hard to tell. And we’re coming down on the former. We’re not convinced this is going to be a fundamental part of the transport space. It will be a feature but not a huge part.”

But for Mignot the early days of the urban mobility attention wars mean there’s much to play for — and much that can be favorably reshaped to fit scooters into the mix.

“The whole thing, even on-demand bikes, it’s a two year old phenomenon really,” he says. “So I think everyone is just trying to learn and figure out and adapt to this new reality, whether it’s users or companies or cities. I think it’s very similar to when cars were first introduced. There were no parking spaces at the time and there were no rules on the road. And fast forward 100 years and it looks very different.

“If you look at the amount of infrastructure and effort and spend that has been put into making — and I would argue way more than should have — into making a city car-friendly, if you only do a 100th of the same amount of effort and spend into making some space for bicycles and light two-wheel vehicles I think we’ll be fine.

“That’s the beauty of this model. If you compare the space of the tech and if you look at the efficiency of moving people around vs the space, the scooters are simply the most efficient because their footprint on the ground is just so small.”

He even makes the case for scooters working well in London — arguing the sprawl of the city amps up the utility because there are so many tedious last mile trips that people have to make.

Even more so than in denser European cities like Paris, where he admits that hopping on a scooter might just be more of a “nice to have”, given shorter distances and all the other available options. So, really, where urban mobility is concerned, it can actually be courses for horses.

Yet, the reality is London is off-limits to the likes of Bird and Lime for now — thanks to UK laws barring this type of unlicensed personal electric vehicle from public roads and spaces.

You can buy e-scooters for use on private land in the UK but any scooter startups that tried their usual playbook in London would be scooting straight for legal hot water.

It’s not just the British weather that’s inclement.

“I’m really hoping that TfL [Transport for London] and the Department for Transport are going to make it possible,” says Mignot on that. “I think any city should welcome this with open arms. Some cities are, by the way. And I think over time once they see the success stories in other parts of the world I think they all will. But I wish London was one of those cutting edge cities that would welcome new innovation with open arms. I think right now, unfortunately, it’s not there.

“There’s a lot of talk about air quality, and so on, but actually, when push comes to shove… you have a lot of resistance and a lot of pushback… So it’s a little bit disappointing. But, you know, we’ll get there eventually.”

 


0

VC Brian O’Malley jumps from Accel to Forerunner Ventures

21:15 | 22 June

Brian O’Malley may be the most-poached venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. While rising through the ranks at the global investment firm Battery Ventures, where O’Malley had led deals in Hotel Tonight among others, he was plucked out of the firm by Accel Partners in 2013, where both O’Malley and Accel thought he could be even more successful.

Now, fast forward five years, and O’Malley is announcing today (through Forbes) that he just joined Forerunner Ventures, the top e-commerce investing firm launched in 2010 by founder Kirsten Green.

That O’Malley is willing to make moves is hardly a knock. For someone whose job it is to create and manage promising portfolios, he seems to be managing his career with that same, smart mindset.

The move also reflects well on Forerunner, a much younger firm than storied Accel but whose star has been soaring in recent years, thanks to early bets on companies like Bonobos (sold to Walmart), Jet.com (sold to Walmart), Dollar Shave Club (sold to Unilever), and Hotel Tonight, among many other known and growing brands, including the cosmetics company Glossier, the athleisure-wear company Outdoor Voices, and the home furnishings company Serena & Lily.

Indeed, though Forerunner seems to be doing just fine with its current team, one can imagine that adding O’Malley to its ranks will only make fundraising easier — and our bet is the firm is fundraising right around now, based on the close of its current, third, fund, in the summer of 2016.

You can learn more about O’Malley’s newest move here. In the meantime, if you’re interested in some of what’s involved in switching firms in Silicon Valley, O’Malley had given us some great insight into these moves back in 2015, where he discussed what a VC needs to factor in when joining a new team, what happens to his or her board seats, and much more.

 


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Twitter buys a startup to battle harassment, e-cigs are booming, and a meditation app is worth $250M

16:00 | 22 June

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines. This week TechCrunch’s Silicon Valley Editor Connie Loizos and I jammed out on a couple topics as Alex Wilhelm was out managing his fake stock game spreadsheets or something. (The jury is out on whether this was a good or bad thing.)

First up is Twitter buying Smyte, a startup targeting fixes for spam and abuse. This is, of course, Twitter’s perennial problem and it’s one that it’s been trying to fix for some time — but definitely not there yet. The deal terms weren’t disclosed, but Twitter to its credit has seen its stock basically double this year (and almost triple in the past few years). Twitter is going into a big year, with the U.S. midterm elections, the 2018 World Cup, and the Sacramento Kings probably finding some way to screw up in the NBA draft. This’ll be a close one to watch over the next few months as we get closer to the finals for the World Cup and the elections. Twitter is trying to bill itself as a home for news, focusing on live video, and a number of other things.

Then we have Juul Labs, an e-cigarette company that is somehow worth $10 billion. The Information reports that the PAX Labs spinout from 2015 has gone from a $250 million valuation all the way to $10 billion faster than you can name each scooter company that’s raising a new $200 million round from Sequoia that will have already been completed by the time you finish this sentence. Obviously the original cigarette industry was a complicated one circa the 20th century, so this one will be an interesting one to play out over the next few years.

Finally, we have meditation app Calm raising a $27 million round at a $250 million pre-money valuation. Calm isn’t the only mental health-focused startup that’s starting to pick up some momentum, but it’s one that’s a long time coming. I remember stumbling upon Calm.com back in 2012, where you’d just chill out on the website for a minute or so, so it’s fun to see a half-decade or so later that these apps are showing off some impressive numbers.

That’s all for this week, we’ll catch you guys next week. We apologize in advance if Alex makes it back on to the podcast.

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

 


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Beamery closes $28M Series B to stoke support for its ‘talent CRM’

19:30 | 20 June

Beamery, a London-based startup that offers self-styled “talent CRM”– aka ‘candidate relationship management’ — and recruitment marketing software targeted at fast-growing companies, has closed a $28M Series B funding round, led by EQT Ventures.

Also participating in the round are M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, and existing investors Index Ventures, Edenred Capital Partners and Angelpad Fund. Beamery last raised a $5M Series A, in April 2017, led by Index.

Its pitch centers on the notion of helping businesses win a ‘talent war’ by taking a more strategic and pro-active approach to future hires vs just maintaining a spreadsheet of potential candidates.

Its platform aims to help the target enterprises build and manage a talent pool of people they might want to hire in future to get out ahead of the competition in HR terms, including providing tools for customized marketing aimed at nurture relations with possible future hires.

Customer numbers for Beamery’s software have stepped up from around 50 in April 2017 to 100 using it now — including the likes of Facebook (which is using it globally), Continental, VMware, Zalando, Grab and Balfour Beatty.

It says the new funding will be going towards supporting customer growth, including by ramping up hiring in its offices in London (HQ), Austin and San Francisco.

It also wants to expand into more markets. “We’re focusing on some of the world’s biggest global businesses that need support in multiple timezones and geographies so really it’s a global approach,” said a spokesman on that.

“Companies adopting the system are large enterprises doing talent at scale, that are innovative in terms of being proactive about recruiting, candidate experience and employer brand,” he added.

A “significant” portion of the Series B funds will also go towards R&D and produce development focused on its HR tech niche.

“Across all sectors, there’s a shift towards proactive recruitment through technology, and Beamery is emerging as the category leader,” added Tom Mendoza, venture lead and investment advisor at EQT, in a supporting statement.

“Beamery has a fantastic product, world-class high-ambition founders, and an outstanding analytics-driven team. They’ve been relentless about building the best talent CRM and marketing platform and gaining a deep understanding of the industry-wide problems.”

 


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Grove just raised $8 million to make traditional financial planning affordable to pretty much everyone

18:00 | 20 June

Financial advisors aren’t cheap to use. They aren’t always seen as trustworthy, either, with many advisors receiving — or perceived as receiving — incentives for recommending certain products over others.

Grove, a two-year-old, San Francisco-based startup, is taking on both of these issues through software that makes it easier to its own financial advisors – who are paid a straight salary — to help greater numbers of people, and more cost-effectively.

Specifically, for $600 a year, a customer can talk with or email his or her financial advisor about all kinds of big and small decisions, from which index funds are worth considering, to whether a particular house is within reach given that person’s retirement goals.

So far, the company has just 12 employees, half of whom are financial advisors and the other half of whom are working on the product itself.

Cofounder and CEO Chris Hutchins won’t reveal how many people each financial advisor is working with currently out of fear that it might give away too much about the young company’s revenue. But generally speaking, the number of clients who advisors work with can vary widely, from tens to many hundreds. (In a 2016, Barron’s article of the “best” 1,200 financial advisors in the U.S., the advisors worked on average with a stunning 520 families.)

Either way, Grove’s investors — many of whom are athletes — think the company is on to something. Just five months after announcing $2.1 million in seed funding (money that Hutchins says was raised a bit earlier, in 2017), Grove has closed on $8 million in fresh funding.

Defy Ventures, launched last year by veteran VCs Trae Vassallo and Neil Sequeira, led the financing, with participation from Tusk Ventures, Bullish, and Winklevoss Capital. The round also included, among others, NBA star Kevin Durant; former football player Patrick Kearny; and former football player Ryan Nece, who today runs the venture firm NextPlay Capital.

Asked about Grove’s connection to star athletes, Hutchins — who’d earlier spent several years as an investor with GV, Google’s early-stage venture group — says Grove “struck a chord with them. Many know people who had a lot of money and worked with financial advisors but who didn’t always get the best advice or work with people who had their best interests in mind.”

They like the idea of unbiased advice, suggests Hutchins. They also like that one needn’t be a professional athlete to afford it.

 


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Canaan Partners gives $20 million to its two youngest employees to invest in consumer startups

14:30 | 20 June

Canaan Partners, the venture capital firm that has backed companies like Skybox Imaging, Match.com and Lending Club, has a new investment strategy. Called Canaan Beta, it entails setting aside $20 million of its $800 million fund to its two youngest employees, and then empowering them to make their own investment decisions as a duo. The bet is that, just how Jeremy Liew found out about Snapchat from his teenage daughter, Canaan’s youngest staffers will find other potentially lucrative opportunities.

As the speed of technological innovation continues to increase, the barriers to starting a tech company decline and the demographics in the U.S. go in the direction of non-white, Canaan envisions its Beta program being potentially game-changing for the firm. Since January, Hootan Rashidifard (28 years old) and Adina Tecklu (27 years old) have invested in five seed stage startups, with checks ranging in size from $250,000 – $500,000 each. Before Canaan Beta kicked off, Rashidifard and Tecklu worked as analysts at Canaan, where they have supported partners and founders but have not been autonomous check writers. By empowering its two youngest employees with decision-making power, Canaan hopes to better tap into the non-white, younger consumer market.

Rashidifard and Tecklu, both people of color, have joined an industry where 73 percent of investment professionals are white, according to a report from the Kapor Center for Social Impact. Meanwhile, just 12 percent of all investment professionals are women.

“We can use our backgrounds and our perspectives to see opportunities that others might overlook, which is really awesome,” Rashidifard told TechCrunch. “We might be seeing something that other people aren’t.”

More specifically, Rashidifard and Tecklu are looking at companies in blockchain, gaming, digital media, social and digital health.

“We’re not looking for incremental improvements to products or services,” Tecklu told TechCrunch. “We’re looking at category defining and category creating companies here. So the scope feels quite large but what they all have in common is that we’re really backing tenacious founders with audacious visions for what the future looks like and they’re building towards that.”

To hear more about Tecklu’s new role, and her take on all-things technology and culture, check out the latest episode of CTRL+T.

 


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Cyan Banister to tell her story at Disrupt SF

19:45 | 19 June

When we look around at some of the Silicon Valley superstars, it’s easy to wonder how they got here. Was it luck? Brute force? Wits? Charm?

At Disrupt SF, Founders Fund partner Cyan Banister is going to tell her story, and it might not be the narrative you’d expect. Not everyone in Silicon Valley goes to Stanford or Harvard, but sometimes it’s that alternative perspective that gives someone a leg up.

Banister’s history isn’t what you’d expect, and at Disrupt SF she’ll explain where she came from and how she became one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful investors.

Before joining Founders Fund, Banister was a wildly successful angel investor, with portfolio companies including Uber, Thumbtack, SpaceX, Postmates, EShares, Affirm and Niantic. Banister taught herself to code, and held a number of technical leadership positions prior to angel investing, including overseeing support infrastructure and performance at Cisco.

If Banister had to narrow her success down to one factor, it would be mentorship. Some people see that as an inorganic prospect, but Banister plans to explain how simple it can be to invite someone along to that concert, or conference, or hackathon, and make a difference in their life.

“When I tell people my story, they always tell me that I should write a book,” said Banister. “That feels very self-serving to me. I’ve been searching for a way to tell my story in a helpful way.”

At Disrupt SF, Banister will tell her story with the hopes to inspire folks to reach out and touch someone else’s life. The conversation will be livestreamed and recorded to VOD.

Tickets to Disrupt are available here.

 


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Investment advisory software developer SigFig raises $50 million

17:43 | 19 June

SigFig, the developer of an automated wealth management toolkit, has raised $50 million in a new round of funding.

The company said the new money would be used to continue its research and development.

The new funding was led by General Atlantic and included participation from existing investors like Bain Capital Ventures, DCM Ventures, Eaton Vance, New York Live, Nyca Partners, UBS and Union Square Ventures.

Unlike other tech-enabled advisory services firms like Betterment and WealthFront, which have primarily taken a direct to consumer approach, SigFig sells its tools primarily to financial services firms like Wells Fargo, UBS, and Citizens Bank.

SigFig also has a small direct to consumer business, which the company uses to test new products and services before bringing them to their main, business, customers.

SigFig’s chief executive and co-founder, Mike Sha, says that the blended approach of working with wealth managers actually allows his company to reach more customers than if they were to pitch their services directly to consumers.

Sha isn’t the only executive with that philosophy. Companies like Starburst Labs and FutureAdvisor have a blended, advisory focused approach according to market analysis companies like Owler and CBInsights.

“The market for digitally-native investment advisors continues to grow due to increasing customer demand for accessible and affordable financial advice,” said Paul Stamas, Managing Director at General Atlantic, in a statement.

SigFig makes money by selling its toolkit under a license to financial services firms and by taking a percentage of the assets that are managed through its tech.

 Some of the new services that SigFig will look to develop (now that it’s raised additional capital) include the expansion of its advisory and planning capabilities to look at retirement planning and plan and save for other longterm goals, Sha said.

Sha declined to comment on the company’s valuation, revenue, or exact number of customers, but he did say

 

 


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VCs serve up a large helping of cash to startups disrupting food

21:11 | 16 June

Here is what your daily menu might look like if recently funded startups have their way.

You’ll start the day with a nice, lightly caffeinated cup of cheese tea. Chase away your hangover with a cold bottle of liver-boosting supplement. Then slice up a few strawberries, fresh-picked from the corner shipping container.

Lunch is full of options. Perhaps a tuna sandwich made with a plant-based, tuna-free fish. Or, if you’re feeling more carnivorous, grab a grilled chicken breast fresh from the lab that cultured its cells, while crunching on a side of mushroom chips. And for extra protein, how about a brownie?

Dinner might be a pizza so good you send your compliments to the chef — only to discover the chef is a robot. For dessert, have some gummy bears. They’re high in fiber with almost no sugar.

Sound terrifying? Tasty? Intriguing? If you checked tasty and intriguing, then here is some good news: The concoctions highlighted above are all products available (or under development) at food and beverage startups that have raised venture and seed funding this past year.

These aren’t small servings of capital, either. A Crunchbase News analysis of venture funding for the food and beverage category found that startups in the space gobbled up more than $3 billion globally in disclosed investment over the past 12 months. That includes a broad mix of supersize deals, tiny seed rounds and everything in-between.

Spending several hours looking at all these funding rounds leaves one with a distinct sense that eating habits are undergoing a great deal of flux. And while we can’t predict what the menu of the future will really hold, we can highlight some of the trends. For this initial installment in our two-part series, we’ll start with foods. Next week, we’ll zero in on beverages.

Chickenless nuggets and fishless tuna

For protein lovers disenchanted with commercial livestock farming, the future looks good. At least eight startups developing plant-based and alternative proteins closed rounds in the past year, focused on everything from lab meat to fishless fish to fast-food nuggets.

New investments add momentum to what was already a pretty hot space. To date, more than $600 million in known funding has gone to what we’ve dubbed the “alt-meat” sector, according to Crunchbase data. Actual investment levels may be quite a bit higher since strategic investors don’t always reveal round size.

In recent months, we’ve seen particularly strong interest in the lab-grown meat space. At least three startups in this area — Memphis Meats, SuperMeat and Wild Type — raised multi-million dollar rounds this year. That could be a signal that investors have grown comfortable with the concept, and now it’s more a matter of who will be early to market with a tasty and affordable finished product.

Makers of meatless versions of common meat dishes are also attracting capital. Two of the top funding recipients in our data set include Seattle Food Tech, which is working to cost-effectively mass-produce meatless chicken nuggets, and Good Catch, which wants to hook consumers on fishless seafoods. While we haven’t sampled their wares, it does seem like they have chosen some suitable dishes to riff on. After all, in terms of taste, both chicken nuggets and tuna salad are somewhat removed from their original animal protein sources, making it seemingly easier to sneak in a veggie substitute.

Robot chefs

Another trend we saw catching on with investors is robot chefs. Modern cooking is already a gadget-driven process, so it’s not surprising investors see this as an area ripe for broad adoption.

Pizza, the perennial takeout favorite, seems to be a popular area for future takeover by robots, with at least two companies securing rounds in recent months. Silicon Valley-based Zume, which raised $48 million last year, uses robots for tasks like spreading sauce and moving pies in and out of the oven. France’s EKIM, meanwhile, recently opened what it describes as a fully autonomous restaurant staffed by pizza robots cooking as customers watch.

Salad, pizza’s healthier companion side dish, is also getting roboticized. Just this week, Chowbotics, a developer of robots for food service whose lineup includes Sally the salad robot, announced an $11 million Series A round.

Those aren’t the only players. We’ve put together a more complete list of recently launched or funded robot food startups here.

Beyond sugar

Sugar substitutes aren’t exactly a new area of innovation. Diet Rite, often credited as the original diet soda, hit the market in 1958. Since then, we’ve had 60 years of mass-marketing for low-calorie sweeteners, from aspartame to stevia.

It’s not over. In recent quarters, we’ve seen a raft of funding rounds for startups developing new ways to reduce or eliminate sugar in many of the foods we’ve come to love. On the dessert and candy front, Siren Snacks and SmartSweets are looking to turn favorite indulgences like brownies and gummy bears into healthy snack options.

The quest for good-for-you sugar also continues. The latest funding recipient in this space appears to be Bonumuse, which is working to commercialize two rare sugars, Tagatose and Allulose, as lower-calorie and potentially healthier substitutes for table sugar. We’ve compiled a list of more sugar-reduction-related startups here.

Where is it all headed?

It’s tough to tell which early-stage food startups will take off and which will wind up in the scrap bin. But looking in aggregate at what they’re cooking up, it looks like the meal of the future will be high in protein, low in sugar and prepared by a robot.

 


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Ashton Kutcher and Effie Epstein to talk Sound Ventures at TC Disrupt SF

21:50 | 13 June

While many celebrities try to invest in the world of tech, very few do so successfully. And no one has proved their worth as celebrity-turned-VC more than Ashton Kutcher .

That’s why we’re absolutely thrilled to host Ashton Kutcher and Sound Ventures partner Effie Epstein at TC Disrupt SF in September.

Kutcher first got into investing in 2011 with the launch of A-Grade Investments. The firm invested in big-name companies like DuoLingo, FlexPort, ProductHunt, Airbnb, and Uber. In 2014, Kutcher, alongside his longtime friend and partner Guy Oseary, started a new VC firm called Sound Ventures.

Since launch, Sound Ventures has made 53 investments and led six rounds of financing, with portfolio companies including Gusto, Vicarious, Robinhood, Lemonade, and Acorns.

And in 2017, Sound made another investment in the form of Effie Epstein. The firm brought on Epstein as managing partner and COO, with Kutcher telling TechCrunch: “Effie has a deep understanding of business and fiduciary responsibilities. She also has a multidisciplinary background which makes her a home run for venture. The bottom line is she is someone I want to work for.”

Before joining Sound, Epstein led global strategy at Marsh & McLennan subsidiary Marsh. Prior to Marsh, she served as SVP of planning and head of Investor Relations at iHeartMedia, and before that she worked in business development at Clear. Epstein also worked in investment banking in the energy sector and has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

In other words, Epstein brings a multi-disciplinary approach to Sound, which is venturing beyond consumer tech into financial services, insurance tech, enterprise, govtech and medtech sectors.

This won’t be Kutcher’s first go-around at Disrupt. He spoke at Disrupt NY in 2013, right as the world was first hearing about Bitcoin. We’re excited to revisit the topic of cryptocurrencies and so much more with Kutcher and Epstein, and discuss their investment thesis moving forward.

Tickets to Disrupt SF are available here.

 


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