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Main article: Venture Capital

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Dallas-based TXV Partners targets $50M for its debut fund

20:00 | 8 December

Marcus Stroud and Brandon Allen met six years ago as roommates at Princeton University. The pair bonded over a common interest and a shared dream: to be venture capitalists.

“We were at a lecture and there were a couple VCs on campus speaking,” 25-year-old Stroud told TechCrunch. “Being a kid from a small town in Texas, Princeton was already a huge culture shock, but hearing about a world of VC, investment banking and private equity just really intrigued me.”

In 2016, Stroud and Allen graduated. Stroud, a former linebacker on the Princeton football team, went off to Wall Street where he was a fixed income analyst, and then to Austin, where he joined the alternative asset manager Vida Capital to learn the ins and outs of investing. Twenty-four-old Allen, meanwhile, clocked in about two years as a consultant.

It didn’t take long for the aspiring VCs to find their way back to each other to finally start on the project they had discussed in their dorm room. Over the last several months, Allen and Stroud have been quietly building a Dallas-based venture firm called TXV Partners . Their lofty target: $50 million, which would be the largest fund ever for an all-black line-up of general partners, an especially notable feat given Allen and Stroud are located in a market largely ignored by the storied VC firms of Silicon Valley.

TXV co-founder and general partner Marcus Stroud

Building the next great VC hub

Stroud and Allen plan to spend the $50 million on millennials. That is, millennial-friendly startups in the consumer, fintech and blockchain verticals, of which they’ll provide between $500,000 and $3 million in equity funding. So far, they’ve invested in one company, an Austin-based blockchain music platform called Matter Music.

Thanks to Stroud’s time on Princeton’s football team and his father, who is a former NFL player, TXV has tapped some athletic talent to support the fund and its portfolio companies. Former NFL player and Northgate Capital managing director Brent Jones is a mentor, and the firm’s advisors include athletes-turned-investors Torii Hunter and Steve Wisniewski, a former professional baseball player and NFL player, respectively.

A rapid transit train (DART) with the skyline of Dallas, Texas in the background

Allen is leading the firm’s Dallas office and Stroud is scouting full-time for startups in Austin, which is already a well-known source of tech talent.

“We wanted to be part of the next great VC hub,” Allen told TechCrunch. “We felt like it made sense and we felt comfortable in Texas. The thought of moving to San Francisco was out of reach for us. Texas has the opportunity to be at the forefront of what the next generation of technology will look like.”

With large universities feeding the talent pool, Texas has the potential but has yet to fully emerge as a force to be reckoned with for technology investors, even with the buzz surrounding Austin’s rising startup ecosystem. So far this year, companies headquartered in Texas have raised roughly $2.5 billion, on par with levels seen in the state in recent years, according to PitchBook. California startups, for context, have raised more than $50 billion this year.

Texas has the opportunity to be at the forefront of what the next generation of technology will look like. TXV co-founder Brandon Allen

In Austin this year, startups have pulled in $1.4 billion, just north of the $1.3 billion in total capital commitments in 2017. Dallas startups, for their part, have raised just $600 million across 87 deals. Deal count in Dallas actually looks to be dropping, hitting 173 in 2013, 143 in 2016 and falling down to 106 last year, but localized funds like TXV’s may help push the city’s tech scene forward.

‘For Texans, for African Americans and for millennials’

Stroud and Allen are not only first-time general partners of what may become a multi-million-dollar VC fund, but they’re also two African Americans in a field dominated by white men. For them, it’s high stakes and failure is not an option.

VC is known for its lack of diversity. Indeed, 81 percent of VC firms don’t have a single black investor, according to data collected by Richard Kerby, a partner at Equal Ventures. Roughly 50 percent of black investors in the industry are at the associate level, or the lowest level at a firm, and only 2 percent of VC partners are black.

Base10 Partners’ $137 million fund, announced in September, is the largest black-led VC fund to date, but only one of the two general partners are black. Based in San Francisco, Base10 is run by two veteran investors with a well-established network in the Bay Area. The challenges for TXV are much larger, and the barriers may be much tougher to overcome.

“We’re young, black and in Texas,” Allen added. “We’re trying to do it differently. We wanted to really see if we can redefine the VC model from the bottom up. It’s important for Texans, for African Americans and for millennials.”

Brandon Allen and Marcus Stroud want to bring more diversity to venture capital

Allen was raised in New England and Stroud in Prosper, Texas, a small town outside of Dallas. Neither of them comes from wealth, as many Stanford-educated Silicon Valley elite do. They’ll have to put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into TXV, but if they succeed — and even if they don’t — they’ll have helped paint a new archetype for VCs.

“African Americans aren’t that well represented on either side of the table as an investor or a startup founder,” Stroud said. “I think, if anything, that doesn’t discourage us, it just makes us feel proud and empowered that we have an opportunity to help cultivate a fund that is majority minority-led. It’s something that fires me up.”

 


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SoftBank’s Vision Fund inches closer to $100B

19:47 | 8 December

Jason Rowley Contributor
Jason Rowley is a venture capital and technology reporter for Crunchbase News.

Much has been said about the SoftBank Vision Fund (SBVF), mostly in awe of the size of the investment vehicle.

It’s important to remember that the $100 billion number most often associated with the gargantuan fund is only a target. Today, however, the Vision Fund inched yet closer to that 12-figure goal as it continues to pour billions of dollars into technology companies around the world.

So far in 2018 the SoftBank Vision Fund has invested in more than 20 deals, accounting for over $21 billion in total investment. That sum didn’t all come from the Vision Fund of course — SoftBank’s Vision Fund typically invests alongside one or more syndicate partners who help fill out bigger rounds — but the amounts are nonetheless staggering. The chart below shows the Vision Fund’s investments since its inception in 2017.

In an annual Form D disclosure filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this morning, SBVF disclosed that it has raised a total of approximately $98.58 billion from 14 investors since the date of first sale on May 20, 2017. The annual filing from last year said there was roughly $93.15 billion raised from 8 investors, meaning that the Vision Fund has raised $5.43 billion in the past year and added six new investors to its limited partner base.

In a financial report from November, SoftBank Group Corp disclosed (p. 21, Note 1) it has invested an additional $5 billion in the fund, which is “intended for the installment of an incentive scheme for operations of SoftBank Vision Fund.” It brings SoftBank’s total contribution to $21.8 billion, in line with original targets.

The most recent Form D also cites six more limited partners. Crunchbase News presumes that the $430 million in new capital we cannot source back to SoftBank came from those new partners. SoftBank declined to comment on who they are.

Uncertainty looms over Vision Fund 2

One of the primary challenges an investor as big as the Vision Fund faces is sourcing capital. SoftBank doesn’t have a lot of choice about who it can take on as limited partners. To fill out a $100 billion fund (or something larger), government-backed investors are some of the only market participants with the financial wherewithal to anchor its limited partner base. And, sometimes, international politics and venture finance collide.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund committed $45 billion to the SBVF; it’s the single biggest backer of the fund. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is implicated in the extrajudicial torture, murder, dismemberment and disposal of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in early October.

In November, TechCrunch reported that SoftBank would wait for the outcome of Khashoggi’s murder investigation before it decides on Vision Fund 2. New revelations this weekend close the window of reasonable doubt around bin Salman’s involvement in the murder.

This past weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency intercepted 11 messages sent between bin Salman and one of his closest aides, who allegedly oversaw the execution squad, in the hours before Khashoggi’s death. Amid mounting international and intelligence community consensus, though, the White House continues to defend Saudi Arabia.

Given these recent developments, it’s uncertain how SoftBank’s relationship with the Vision Fund’s principal backer will change going forward. Whether anything changes at all is itself an unknown at this point too.

SoftBank COO Marcelo Claure said there was “no certainty” of a follow-up fund back in mid-October.

 


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Lyft’s going public, Uber’s eyeing Bird, Utah’s tech scene and trade tensions

17:05 | 7 December

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

This week we had Connie Loizos in the studio along with Kate Clark, myself and a special guest. The special guest was fitting, as it was a special episode. Why? Because this is our 100th episode, a milestone that would have probably seemed a silly idea back when we started the show.

This week our first guest, SaaStr founder and venture capitalist

came back on the show. When he first showed up, we talked Elon Musk. This time it was ridesharing liquidity, ridesharing M&A and more.

Sadly two of our founding members (

and
) are elsewhere as we reach 100 shows, but a big cheers to them for their work. Hugs and thanks to Chris Gates for producing Equity with a rare mixture of kindness and patience. Material appreciation to TechCrunch’s Henry Pickavet and Yashad Kulkarni for approving and shepherding the project thus far, and a big round of appreciation for Connie Loizos,
and Kate Clark for joining the hosting crew.

Finally, thanks to you for sticking with us. Millions of downloads, live shows successful and not and three-figures of episodes later, we’re still here!

Alright, enough self-congratulation. Let’s talk tech. And money.

This week we had a bit of a laundry list of topics to get through. The first of which was Lyft’s now publicly known, but privately filed IPO document. The company is going public about going public while staying private about the same matter.

Regardless, Lyft’s decision to go public now should mean it’s the first out of the gate. Uber will go public second. Which company that order will assist isn’t super clear. In the past, it was thought that the first of Uber and Lyft to go public would expose itself to pricing pressure from its yet-private competitor. But this deep into the ridesharing saga, and with both companies still so unprofitable, perhaps that isn’t the case.

Uber may be scooter shopping regardless, so perhaps its IPO isn’t in the offing. Yes, reporting indicates that the company may be playing Duck Hunt because it could be taking aim at Bird. With an M&A gun? This analogy isn’t good.

If Uber buys Bird, say, does that mean Lyft buys Lime? Even though Uber is a Lime investor? Place your bets.

Next up we riffed on Utah’s tech scene, the well-known Silicon Slopes . The region’s 2018 has been big. Podium raised and posted big revenue growth figures. Pluralsight and Domo went public. And most recently, Weave raised $37.5 million. It’s a big year for the state. My view is that it is no longer up-and-coming. Our guest agreed.

And finally, Kate took us through the Huawei fiasco. The company’s CFO has been detained in Canada for what MSNBC calls “U.S. extradition.” Oof. This at a time when the American premier is rattling about in his barrel about trade. The stock market is worried. Maybe we should be as well.

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

 


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Lightspeed hires 5 new partners from Slack, Twitter and more

00:29 | 7 December

Lightspeed Venture Partners, one of the best-performing VC firms in Silicon Valley, is closing out 2018 with a slew of new hires.

The firm has brought on five additional investing partners: Jana Messerschmidt, Ashley Brasier, Merci Victoria Grace (pictured above), Jerry Ye and Jay Madheswaran. Neetzan Zimmerman, a former senior editor at Gawker, has also joined as vice president of growth, as first reported by Forbes.

The additions are 50 percent female, a good move for Lightspeed, which like many VC firms, has been long short on female partners. Founded in 2000, Lightspeed has had just two female partners, Nicole Quinn and Natalie Luu, who joined in 2016 and 2018, respectively.

Two of its newest hires, Messerschmidt and Grace, are particularly active advocates of women in tech, too.

Jana Messerschmidt, one of Lightspeed’s newest partners

Messerschmidt joins from Twitter, where she was vice president of global business development and platform. She’s also held business and engineering roles at Netflix and DivX, and is a co-founder of #Angels, a group of early-stage investors focused on getting more women on cap tables. Messerschmidt already has a number of consumer tech companies in her portfolio, including Bird, Winnie, Carrot, TruStory and Cameo.

Brasier, also tapped to support Lightspeed’s consumer investing practice, joins straight out of Stanford Business School. Before that, she was a manager at on-demand services marketplace Thumbtack, where she ran the events and weddings category.

On top of that, Lightspeed has poached Slack’s head of growth Merci Victoria Grace, who’s also a founder of Women in Product, a community for women in the field that has grown to 5,000 members since 2015. She’ll join the firm’s enterprise team.

Ye, a founding partner and former head of data science at SignalFire, a data-focused venture firm, will support Lightspeed’s growth team and will help support the firm’s data science practice. Madheswaran, for his part, will specialize in open source and cloud software. He was most recently at Lightspeed portfolio company Rubrik, where he was a founding engineer and head of product engineering.

Finally, the firm has brought on Zimmerman, the former Gawker editor, as VP of growth. Until recently, he was a senior director of audience and strategy at The Hill. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Whisper, a Sequoia-backed AI-enabled storytelling platform.

The hiring news comes hot off the feels of Lightspeed’s $1.8 billion fund announcement. The pool of capital is the 18-year-old firm’s largest to date.

Lightspeed, the first institutional investor to throw support behind Snap, has also written early checks to MuleSoft and Stitch Fix, which both completed successful IPOs this year.

 


0

Contentful raises $33.5M for its headless CMS platform

20:58 | 6 December

Contentful, a Berlin- and San Francisco-based startup that provides content management infrastructure for companies like Spotify, Nike, Lyft and others, today announced that it has raised a $33.5 million Series D funding round led by Sapphire Ventures, with participation from OMERS Ventures and Salesforce Ventures, as well as existing investors General Catalyst, Benchmark, Balderton Capital and Hercules. In total, the company has now raised $78.3 million.

It’s only been less than a year since the company raised its Series C round and as Contentful co-founder and CEO Sascha Konietzke told me, the company didn’t really need to raise right now. “We had just raised our last round about a year ago. We still had plenty of cash in our bank account and we didn’t need to raise as of now,” said Konietzke. “But we saw a lot of economic uncertainty, so we thought it might be a good moment in time to recharge. And at the same time, we already had some interesting conversations ongoing with Sapphire [formeraly SAP Ventures] and Salesforce. So we saw the opportunity to add more funding and also start getting into a tight relationship with both of these players.”

The original plan for Contentful was to focus almost explicitly on mobile. As it turns out, though, the company’s customers also wanted to use the service to handle its web-based applications and these days, Contentful happily supports both. “What we’re seeing is that everything is becoming an application,” he told me. “We started with native mobile application, but even the websites nowadays are often an application.”

In its early days, Contentful also focuses only on developers. Now, however, that’s changing and having these connections to large enterprise players like SAP and Salesforce surely isn’t going to hurt the company as it looks to bring on larger enterprise accounts.

Currently, the company’s focus is very much on Europe and North America, which account for about 80% of its customers. For now, Contentful plans to continue to focus on these regions, though it obviously supports customers anywhere in the world.

Contentful only exists as a hosted platform. As of now, the company doesn’t have any plans for offering a self-hosted version, though Konietzke noted that he does occasionally get requests for this.

What the company is planning to do in the near future, though, is to enable more integrations with existing enterprise tools. “Customers are asking for deeper integrations into their enterprise stack,” Konietzke said. “And that’s what we’re beginning to focus on and where we’re building a lot of capabilities around that.” In addition, support for GraphQL and an expanded rich text editing experience is coming up. The company also recently launched a new editing experience.

 


0

The trust dilemma of continuous background checks

19:15 | 6 December

First, background checks at startups, then Huawei’s finance chief is arrested, SoftBank’s IPO is subscribed, and I am about to record our next edition of TechCrunch Equity. It’s Thursday, December 6, 2018.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

The dilemma of continuous background checks

My colleague John Biggs covered the Series A round for Israel-based Intelligo, a startup that provides “Ongoing Monitoring” — essentially a continuous background check that can detect if (when?) an employee has suddenly become a criminal or other deviant. That’s a slight pivot from the company’s previous focus of using AI/ML to conduct background checks more efficiently.

Background checks are a huge business. San Francisco-based Checkr, perhaps the most well-known startup in the space, has raised $149 million according to Crunchbase, driven early on by the need to on-board thousands of contingent workers at companies like Uber. Checkr launched what it calls “Continuous Check” which also actively monitors all employees for potential problems, back in July.

Now consider a piece written a few weeks ago by Olivia Carville at Bloomberg that explored the rise of “algorithmic auditors” that actively monitor employee expenses and flags ones it feels are likely to be fraudulent:

U.S. companies, fearing damage to their reputations, are loath to acknowledge publicly how much money they lose each year on fraudulent expenses. But in a report released in April, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners said it had analyzed 2,700 fraud cases from January 2016 to October 2017 that resulted in losses of $7 billion.

Here’s a question that bugs me though: we have continuous criminal monitoring and expense monitoring. Most corporations monitor web traffic and email/Slack/communications. Everything we do at work is poked and prodded to make sure it meets “policy.”

And yet, we see vituperative attacks on China’s social credit system, which …. monitors criminal records, looks for financial frauds, and sanctions people based on their scores. How long will we have to wait before employers give us “good employee behavior” scores and attach it to our profiles in Slack?

The conundrum of course is that no startup or company wants (or can) avoid background checks. And it probably makes sense to continually monitor your employees for changes and fraud. If Bob murders someone over the weekend, it’s probably good to know that when you meet Bob at Monday’s standup meeting.

But let’s not pretend that this continuous monitoring isn’t ruinous to something else required from employees: trust. The more heavily monitored every single activity is in the workplace, the more that employees feel that if the system allows them to get away with something, it must be approved. Without any checks, you rely on trust. With hundreds of checks, policy is essentially etched into action — if I can do it, it must meet policy.

In China, where social trust is extremely low, it likely makes sense to have some sort of scoring mechanism to substitute. But for startups and tech companies, building a culture of trust — of doing the right thing even when not monitored — seems crucial to me for success. So before signing up for one of these continuous services, I’d do a double take and consider the potentially deleterious consequences.

If I was a startup employee, I would think twice (maybe thrice?) before traveling to China

Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Last weekend, Trump and Xi agreed to delay the implementation of tariffs on Chinese goods, which led to buoyant Chinese (tech) stocks Monday in Asia time zones. I wrote about how that doesn’t make any sense, since delaying tariffs doesn’t do anything to solve the structural issues in the US/China conflict:

To me the market is deeply misjudging not only the Chinese economy, but also the American leadership as well.

And specifically, I wrote about constraints on Huawei and ZTE:

In what world do these prohibitions disappear? The U.S. national security agencies aren’t going to allow Huawei and ZTE to deploy their equipment in America. Like ever. Quite frankly, if the choice was getting rid of all of China’s non-tariff barriers and allowing Huawei back into America, I think the U.S. negotiators would walk out.

So it was nice to learn (for me, not for her) that the head of finance of Huawei was arrested last night in Canada at the United States’ request. From my colleague Kate Clark:

Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer and second-largest smartphone maker, has been arrested in Vancouver, Canada on suspicion she violated U.S. trade sanctions against Iran, as first reported by The Globe and Mail.

Huawei confirmed the news with TechCrunch, adding that Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, faces unspecified charges in the Eastern District of New York, where she had transferred flights on her way to Canada.

If you wanted to know how the Trump administration was going to continue to fight the trade war outside of tariffs, you now have your answer. This is a bold move by the administration, targeting not just one of China’s most prominent tech companies, but the daughter of the founder of the company to boot.

China has since demanded her return.

Here is how this is going to play out. China is preventing the two American children of Liu Changming from leaving the country, essentially holding them hostage until their father returns to the mainland to face a criminal justice process related to an alleged fraud case. America now has a prominent daughter of a major Chinese company executive in their hands. That’s some nice tit-for-tat.

For startup founders and tech executives migrating between the two countries, I don’t think one has to literally worry about exit visas or extradition.

But, I do think the travel security operations centers at companies that regularly have employees moving between these countries need to keep very keen and cautious eyes on these developments. It’s entirely possible that these one-off “soft hostages” could flare to much higher numbers, making it much more complicated to conduct cross-border work.

Quick Bites

SoftBank’s IPO raises a lot of dollars

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Takahiko Hyuga at Bloomberg reports that SoftBank has sold its entire book of shares for its whopping $23.5 billion IPO. The shares will officially price on Monday and then will trade on December 19. This is a critical and important win for Masayoshi Son, who needs the IPO of his telecom unit to deleverage some of the risk from SoftBank’s massive debt pile (and also to continue funding his startup dreams through Vision Fund, etc.)

SoftBank Vision Fund math, part 2

Arman and I talked yesterday about the complicated math behind just how many dollars are in SoftBank’s Vision Fund. More details, as Jason Rowley pointed out at Crunchbase News:

In an annual Form D disclosure filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this morning, SBVF disclosed that it has raised a total of approximately $98.58 billion from 14 investors since the date of first sale on May 20, 2017. The annual filing from last year said there was roughly $93.15 billion raised from 8 investors, meaning that the Vision Fund has raised $5.43 billion in the past year and added six new investors to its limited partner base.

I said yesterday that the fund size should be “$97 billion or $96.7 billion with precision, assuming this $5 billion reaches a final close.” So let’s revise this number again to $99 billion or $98.6 billion with precision, since it seems the $5 billion did indeed close.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

Hopefully more reading time tomorrow.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

 


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Farmstead is an ambitious grocery delivery startup with plans to defeat Instacart

17:00 | 6 December

In its 3,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District, Farmstead founders Pradeep Elankumaran and Kevin Li, a pair of former Yahoo product managers, plot the future of grocery shopping.

“Think of us as if Whole Foods was rebuilt from scratch by tech founders,” Elankumaran, Farmstead’s chief executive officer, told TechCrunch. “Of course we do delivery because it’s 2018 and no one wants to go to the store anymore.”

Elankumaran launched San Francisco-based Farmstead in 2016 after Amazon and Instacart’s food delivery services repeatedly disappointed him. The startup leverages artificial intelligence-powered predictive analytics and machine learning to accurately predict supply and demand of its inventory, a move Elankumaran says has helped the company significantly reduce waste, as well as complete deliveries to Bay Area residents in less than an hour.

“I had a lot of trouble getting food delivered consistently,” he said. “My daughter had just turned two and she started drinking a lot of milk and I found myself going to the grocery store three to four times a week to buy the same things.”

“So I posted on Nextdoor asking if anyone was interested in a milk, eggs and bread delivery service and in two days, 200 people said yes.”

Two-plus years later, the company is today announcing an additional seed round of $2.2 million, bringing its total raised to date to $7.5 million. ARTIS Labs, Resolute Ventures and Red Dog Capital participated in the round, along with Y Combinator . Farmstead completed the Silicon Valley accelerator program in 2016 shortly before its initial launch, similar to Instacart, which graduated from Y Combinator in 2012. Elankumaran said the company plans to use the capital to hire aggressively and expand beyond the Bay Area in 2019. 

Farmstead’s business may sound a lot like Instacart, a very well-funded grocery delivery service worth an astounding $7.6 billion, but the startup says the differences are notable. Instacart is a tech layer on top of a supermarket that provides delivery, whereas Farmstead is the supermarket and the delivery service. Elankumaran says this — storing groceries in large, centralized warehouses and making the deliveries — is a highly scalable model destined to defeat Instacart.

Resolute Ventures general partner Mike Hirshland said in a statement that Farmstead could “become a monster company.”

“To replace a trip to the grocery store, so many things have to go right, from ordering the right inventory to last-mile delivery. Farmstead has cracked the code on making grocery delivery profitable and rapidly scalable,” he said.

The company has also recently partnered with Udelv, an autonomous vehicle startup, to make deliveries via the company’s modified GEM eL XD electric trucks.

 


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Foxconn or Foxgone? Tariffs, Wisconsin, and iPhone fires

21:13 | 5 December

First some notes on SoftBank’s rumored expansion into China and its weird fund math, then Foxconn, and then quick notes on tech depression, Huawei, and more.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

SoftBank has fund visions (and a Vision Fund) for China? That, and more money

Kane Wu at Reuters reported over night that SoftBank is looking to open an office and hire an investment team in China, which Wu says will be based in Shanghai. That’s following the fund’s recent global expansion with new targeted offices in Saudi Arabia and India.

When I saw this, I sort of did a double-take: SoftBank doesn’t have a presence in China? The fund has reportedly been seeking investments in some of China’s leading unicorn stars, including controversial face recognition startup SenseTime, and leading edtech startup Zuoyebang (作业帮, which literally translates as “school assignment help”). (Hat tips to Selina Wang at Bloomberg, who seems to just be sitting in Vision Fund partner meetings). And of course, it dumped a pretty penny into WeWork China, where it was part of a $500 million syndicate, and is a huge investor in Didi.

It’s sort of obvious that SoftBank would expand to China. What will be interesting though is to see how the fund structures itself long-term. As far as I know, the Vision Fund is a singular “fund” that invests worldwide (send me an email if I am wrong on this count). China has a thicket of regulations on funds and companies, which is one of several reasons we see specifically China-focused vehicles (such as Lightspeed and Lightspeed China or Sequoia and Sequoia China). If the Vision Fund continues to be a unified fund, that would be a notable strategy shift that might be cloned by other trans-Pacific funds.

Aside: SoftBank Vision Fund math is complicated

Rajeev Misra, board director of SoftBank Group and CEO of SoftBank Investment Advisors. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

When it first closed the Vision Fund, SoftBank explained they had raised just over $93 billion in committed capital or, more precisely, around $93.15-$93.2 billion according to the initial investor presentations and its annual Form D filings. In those docs, SoftBank said that the fund was financed with $28 billion from SoftBank and $65 billion from third-party investors.

On top of the $93 billion raised for the Vision Fund, SoftBank detailed that it had committed $4.5 billion of its own capital to a separate “Delta Fund,” which was used to alleviate conflicts around SoftBank’s Didi investment. Thus, SoftBank’s total VC funding aggregates to around $97.7 billion.

To add a complication, SoftBank later shifted $1.6 billion of the Vision Fund’s previously disclosed $65 billion in third-party capital over to the Delta Fund. In current disclosures, SoftBank shows $91.7 billion of committed capital for the Vision Fund ($28.1 billion from SoftBank and $63.6 billion from third-party investors). For the Delta Fund, SoftBank shows $6 billion in committed capital ($4.5 billion SoftBank contribution and $1.6 billion from third-party investors).

Here is where it gets even more complicated. In its latest filings, SoftBank also notes that it completed the interim closing of an additional $5 billion for the Vision Fund in mid-October, “intended for the installment of an incentive scheme for operations of SoftBank Vision Fund.” That additional cash would bring Vision Fund’s total committed capital to $96.7 billion, and $102.7 billion together with the Delta Fund.

While it wouldn’t be included in the committed equity capital total, SoftBank is also rumored to be raising a $4 billion credit facility to help finance additional acquisitions.

So, it’s probably best to say that the Vision Fund — as constituted right now — is $97 billion or $96.7 billion with precision, assuming this $5 billion reaches a final close.

SoftBank IPO

We have of course covered SoftBank quite obsessively, particularly its debt situation (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5). What we haven’t covered more recently is the latest developments in SoftBank’s IPO, which is slated for December 19th and expected to bring in a haul of $21 billion. More to come on that front in the coming days.

Foxconn or Foxgone?

US President Donald Trump and Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The South China Morning Post reported yesterday that Foxconn is investigating expanding its factories to Vietnam in order to avoid tariffs. Makes sense, and I have some calls this week and next trying to suss out how much hardware supply chains have really changed in response to the trade conflict.

That decision though isn’t just about the trade conflict, but also about the quickly increasing wages of Chinese laborers as well as political interference from Beijing. The Trump administration’s trade policies are just the excuse Foxconn needs to (at least partially) extricate itself from China, while saving face in the process.

What’s interesting is that Foxconn is also dealing with a massive brush fire in Wisconsin, where it received one of the largest economic development incentives ever offered by an American government, a whopping $3 billion package that was expected to drive manufacturing employment in the state.

Over night, Republicans in the state legislature passed a bill that would place large restrictions on incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers. Jessie Opoien for the (Madison) Cap Times:

Under the bill, legislators would have increased influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the WEDC board, not the governor, would appoint the job creation agency’s CEO. However, the governor’s power to appoint a CEO would be restored in September 2019.

That is the agency that provided the Foxconn funding, which has become a political football in Wisconsin politics. Republicans are trying to protect one of the major economic legacies of outgoing governor Scott Walker, as well as what they believe is the future direction of manufacturing work in the state. Democrats smell a boondoggle in the making.

If that wasn’t all, rumored skimpy sales for iPhones is putting enormous pressure on Foxconn’s bottom line. Debby Wu at Bloomberg reported two weeks ago that:

The contract manufacturer aims to cut 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) from expenses in 2019 as it faces “a very difficult and competitive year,” according to an internal document obtained by Bloomberg. The company’s spending in the past 12 months is about NT$206 billion ($6.7 billion).

Foxconn is a very dynamic organization that has weathered repeated crises over the years. It is pretty much unique in what it does today: very few other companies can scale up and down hundreds of thousands of workers to meet iPhone and other device demands with such alacrity.

But, the fundamentals of the mobile device market have apparently changed dramatically this year, and Foxconn is likely to be the company most harmed as the assembler of those devices. That could destroy not just the Chinese dream of leading in manufacturing, but also the Vietnam and Wisconsin dreams as well.

Also: If you haven’t read it, this poetry by a Foxconn worker who committed suicide really resonated with me. Foxconn’s suicide problem is well-documented, but we often don’t hear from the individuals themselves.

Quick bites

Which big tech companies are most depressed?

Blind, the anonymous enterprise chatting app that has taken the tech world by storm, published survey results asking tech employees “I believe I am depressed.” Roughly 40% of employees responded yes. Interestingly, there wasn’t too much variation between companies. Amazon had the highest rate at 43% and Apple had the lowest rate at 30%. It’s an informal survey, probably without high scientific validation, but it is a reminder for all of us in the community that mental health and burnout is very real in the startup and tech ecosystems and we should be vigilant in helping each other when times are rough.

More bad news for Huawei as British Telecom bans its equipment

This is one of those stories that we are just going to keep on hearing about. After bans in Australia and New Zealand, British Telecom has announced they will not just ban Huawei’s 5G equipment, but also its 3G and 4G equipment. Britain, like Aus/NZ, Canada and the US are part of the Five Eyes intelligence network, and national security officials have been leading the crusade against Huawei infrastructure. What’s interesting is not just the rapidity of the bans, but also that the bans haven’t (from what I have seen) migrated outside the Five Eyes community yet.

Pendo commits to hometown of Raleigh

Relaigh skyline. Photo by James Willamor used under Creative Commons via Flickr.

Pendo is a digital product management platform that has had quite a bit of success with customers and has raised more than $100 million in VC funding, most recently a Series D from Sapphire. The company announced that they have received a grant from home state North Carolina’s economic development department to grow in the Raleigh region. Pendo is committing $34.5 million to its headquarters (with the potential of creating 590 jobs), while the state will offer around $8.8 million in potential reimbursements over the next 12 years.

Given what I wrote yesterday about Wes McKinney leaving NYC and heading to Nashville and the work Chattanooga is doing to aid startups, it’s great to see other hotspots like Raleigh, NC invest to build out their ecosystems in a compelling way.

Todd Olson, CEO of Pendo, explained to me by email that, “Office rents in our downtown are a fraction of the cost of operating in other cities, and the cost of living is appealing to our employees. They can afford to buy a house here. In some markets around the country, that is becoming more difficult. It’s also just a nice place to live and work.”

Creative work is increasingly going to have to find a lower cost home.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on Articles

The LP Anti-Portfolio – Great short read. Lindel Eakman, former managing director at UTIMCO, the University of Texas/Texas A&M endowment, gives a list of funds that he passed on that he now regrets. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare coming from an LP, albeit a former one. It would be great to get more public discussion on what funds were missed and why by LP investors.

Hopefully more reading time tomorrow.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

 


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WhiteFox Defense lands $12 million as the demand for drone defense technologies intensifies

18:48 | 5 December

Four months ago, when two commercial DJI-made drones loaded with 1 kilogram each of plastic explosive href="https://techcrunch.com/2018/08/05/venezuela-claims-drones-loaded-with-explosives-used-in-failed-attack-on-president/">detonated during a speech from Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro at a military event in Caracas, the world at large was introduced to the newest threat from our automated, dystopian present — cheap weaponized drone technology.

For Luke Fox, the founder and chief executive of WhiteFox Defense Technologies, it was simply the latest in a string of events proving the need for the kinds of services his company is developing. Something he calls “a highway patrol for the sky.”

From drug smuggling to reconnaissance and information gathering to terror attacks, unmanned aerial drones are no longer the provenance of state military and police actors, and are increasingly being used by criminal organizations to open new, aerial fronts in their operations.

“Drones are by far the biggest asymmetric threat that the U.S. faces,” says Fox. “Countries that don’t have a state sponsored drone program are using them [and] it’s where you see people like ISIS are going.”

In the battle for Mosul in Iraq, ISIS flew over 300 drone missions in one month, according to a talk given last year at CyCon from Peter Singer, a senior fellow and strategist at the New America Foundation. One-third of those were strike missions, representing the first time U.S. military faced an aerial attack since the Korean War.

The 24-year-old Fox began thinking seriously about the weaponization of commercial and consumer drone technology six years ago, when he founded WhiteFox Defense.

Creating the company was an extension of the way that Fox had been taught to think about the world as a child, he’s said. Fox grew up in an abusive foster home, raised by a mentally ill foster mother (who was, herself, a child protective service employee) who had adopted him and a number of mentally and physically challenged children.

“The reality i grew up in had my mind constantly looking for vulnerabilities. And instead of seeing these vulnerabilities as opportunities for crime i now had a whole color palette to choose from,” said Fox. “For example when the world started going crazy over drones as recreational toys i saw that they could be used as weapons or crime and this insight into the criminal mind inspired a company that defends the country from drones.”

Fox was adopted from foster care by the librarian of his local Sacramento-area high school, tested out of college and went on to a community college before enrolling in California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo.

He began working with drones while in school and credits that introduction to the technology as the inspiration for starting White Fox.

“We previously started out in drone manufacturing starting out in high performance drones for specialty clients and research organizations. we needed affordable drones that were highly capable,” said Fox. “Making a highly capable drone that was very affordable attracted some very shady people. And, realizing that there was only so much we could control, it brought us to ask what is out there? At the time, the only thing to counter drones related attacks was large missiles shooting down large Iranian drones.”

WhiteFox currently has three products either in development or on the market. Two have already been released to a select group of customers in different industries and the entire suite will be launched at the beginning of next year, according to Fox.

Without going into specific details of how the technology works, Fox said that WhiteFox Defense systems can detect, identify and mitigate unauthorized drones flying in a particular airspace.

“It’s not jamming or blocking drones or catching them out of the sky,” says Fox. Rather the idea is to provide situational awareness and identify the type of threat that an errant drone represents — whether the operator is, in Fox’s words, “clueless, careless or criminal.”

What Fox would say is that his company has developed a technology that’s based on identifying and differentiating between drones based on their unique radio frequency signatures. That product for identifying drones operating in a space is complemented by a second technology offering which allows WhiteFox to take control of the unauthorized drones in an airspace.

“One of the technologies that was started at Drones For Change [the company that would become WhiteFox] was a universal controller,” said Fox. “That technology really formed the basis. We asked what if this universal controller could become a master controller to take over any drone that was in your airspace? That solved the problem that got us out of drone manufacturing.”

WhiteFox isn’t alone in its attempts to create anti-drone technology. According to some industry statistics there are at least 70 companies working on drone defense technologies with solutions ranging from deploying other drones to capture unauthorized UAVs to jamming technologies that will block a drone’s signal.

Earlier this year, Airspace Systems raised $20 million for its kinetic(drone vs. drone) approach to drone defense, while Citadel Defense raised $12 million and Dedrone pulled in $15 million for their drone-jamming technologies.  And last year, SkySafe raised $11.5 million for a radio-jamming approach similar to WhiteFox, which forces unauthorized drones out of restricted airspace while permitting authorized drones to still fly.

“As​ ​the​ ​adoption​ ​of​ ​consumer​ ​drones increases,​ ​we​ ​believe​ ​it​ ​is​ ​vital​ ​for​ ​an​ ​ambitious​ ​and​ ​effective​ ​defense​ ​platform​ ​to​ ​emerge,” said Alex Rubacalva, a partner at Stage Venture Partners and an early investor in WhiteFox Defense. 

In all, drone-related startups have raised nearly $2 billion in the last eight years, according to data from Crunchbase, pulled at the beginning of 2018. Roughly $600 million of that investment total has come in 2017 and the early part of 2018 alone, the Crunchbase data indicated.

Technologies like SkySafe and WhiteFox are about more than just defending airspace from malicious actors.

“Counter drone technology is not just about securing spaces from drones and preventing bad things from happening,” says Fox. “It’s about enabling drones to be used in the right way.”

The applications extend far beyond military uses. In fact, Fox’s technology is already being adopted by prisons around the U.S. and, indeed, anywhere where airspace usage can be considered sensitive.

“Someone described as the largest delivery operations in the world is happening at prisons,” said Fox. “You have a lot of money behind buying a DJI at best buy and loading it up with heroin, with drugs, with weapons, with even chinese food that was smuggled in. We found that there were drones smuggling in contraband every single day.”

WhiteFox recently conducted a survey with an undisclosed large public prison system in the United States to study just how pervasive a problem drone-smuggling was among its prison population. What the prison saw as one drone a week flying into restricted airspace became a realization that multiple drone flights per day were occurring in attempts to smuggle contraband onto prison grounds.

Operations extend far beyond police and military applications though, according to Fox.

During the California wildfires, rescue operations were halted thanks to unauthorized usage of drones by civilian operators who wanted to capture footage of the disaster. Their actions potentially risked the lives of not only rescue workers but of the citizens they were trying to save and the fire crews attempting to control the worst wildfire in the state’s history.

“This is one of the fascinating things about this industry as a whole,” says Fox. “It’s not that drones are bad and scary and we need to do something about them. If we’re going to embrace this technology as a society we need to be able to safely integrate it into society.”

From its initial deployments, WhiteFox was able to convince investors to funnel $12 million into the company to finance its expansion plans.

The extension of the company’s seed round included investors like JAM Capital, Stage Venture Partners, Okapi Venture Capital, Serra Ventures, and OCA Ventures. 

“WhiteFox’s customers are armed with a highly robust and scalable-for-deployment technology​ ​platform​ ​that​ ​addresses​ ​the​ ​increased​ ​threat​ ​of​ ​hostile​ ​drones​ ​and enables​ ​greater​ ​control​ ​of​ ​their​ ​airspace.,” said Jeff Bocan, a partner at OKapi Venture Capital, in a statement.​ “Crucially, the WhiteFox’s technology also offers customers the ability to protect against reckless drone use, while enabling “friendly” drones to fly freely – all without any human intervention.”

 


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Cove.Tool wants to solve climate change one efficient building at a time

23:01 | 4 December

As the fight against climate change heats up, Cove.Tool is looking to help tackle carbon emissions one building at a time.

The Atlanta-based startup provides an automated big-data platform that helps architects, engineers and contractors identify the most cost-effective ways to make buildings compliant with energy efficiency requirements. After raising an initial round earlier this year, the company completed the final close of a $750,000 seed round. Since the initial announcement of the round earlier this month, Urban Us, the early-stage fund focused on companies transforming city life, has joined the syndicate comprised of Tech Square Labs and Knoll Ventures.

Helping firms navigate a growing suite of energy standards and options

Cove.Tool software allows building designers and managers to plug in a variety of building conditions, energy options, and zoning specifications to get to the most cost-effective method of hitting building energy efficiency requirements (Cove.Tool Press Image / Cove.Tool / https://covetool.com).

In the US, the buildings we live and work in contribute more carbon emissions than any other sector. Governments across the country are now looking to improve energy consumption habits by implementing new building codes that set higher energy efficiency requirements for buildings. 

However, figuring out the best ways to meet changing energy standards has become an increasingly difficult task for designers. For one, buildings are subject to differing federal, state and city codes that are all frequently updated and overlaid on one another. Therefore, the specific efficiency requirements for a building can be hard to understand, geographically unique and immensely variable from project to project.

Architects, engineers and contractors also have more options for managing energy consumption than ever before – equipped with tools like connected devices, real-time energy-management software and more-affordable renewable energy resources. And the effectiveness and cost of each resource are also impacted by variables distinct to each project and each location, such as local conditions, resource placement, and factors as specific as the amount of shade a building sees.

With designers and contractors facing countless resource combinations and weightings, Cove.Tool looks to make it easier to identify and implement the most cost-effective and efficient resource bundles that can be used to hit a building’s energy efficiency requirements.

Cove.Tool users begin by specifying a variety of project-specific inputs, which can include a vast amount of extremely granular detail around a building’s use, location, dimensions or otherwise. The software runs the inputs through a set of parametric energy models before spitting out the optimal resource combination under the set parameters.

For example, if a project is located on a site with heavy wind flow in a cold city, the platform might tell you to increase window size and spend on energy efficient wall installations, while reducing spending on HVAC systems. Along with its recommendations, Cove.Tool provides in-depth but fairly easy-to-understand graphical analyses that illustrate various aspects of a building’s energy performance under different scenarios and sensitivities.

Cove.Tool users can input granular project-specifics, such as shading from particular beams and facades, to get precise analyses around a building’s energy performance under different scenarios and sensitivities.

Democratizing building energy modeling

Traditionally, the design process for a building’s energy system can be quite painful for architecture and engineering firms.

An architect would send initial building designs to engineers, who then test out a variety of energy system scenarios over the course a few weeks. By the time the engineers are able to come back with an analysis, the architects have often made significant design changes, which then gets sent back to the engineers, forcing the energy plan to constantly be 1-to-3 months behind the rest of the building. This process can not only lead to less-efficient and more-expensive energy infrastructure, but the hectic back-and-forth can lead to longer project timelines, unexpected construction issues, delays and budget overruns.

Cove.Tool effectively looks to automate the process of “energy modeling.” The energy modeling looks to ease the pains of energy design in the same ways Building Information Modeling (BIM) has transformed architectural design and construction. Just as BIM creates predictive digital simulations that test all the design attributes of a project, energy modeling uses building specs, environmental conditions, and various other parameters to simulate a building’s energy efficiency, costs and footprint.

By using energy modeling, developers can optimize the design of the building’s energy system, adjust plans in real-time, and more effectively manage the construction of a building’s energy infrastructure. However, the expertise needed for energy modeling falls outside the comfort zones of many firms, who often have to outsource the task to expensive consultants.

The frustrations of energy system design and the complexities of energy modeling are ones the Cove.Tool team knows well. Patrick Chopson and Sandeep Ajuha, two of the company’s three co-founders, are former architects that worked as energy modeling consultants when they first began building out the Cove.Tool software.

After seeing their clients’ initial excitement over the ability to quickly analyze millions of combinations and instantly identify the ones that produce cost and energy savings, Patrick and Sandeep teamed up with CTO Daniel Chopson and focused full-time on building out a comprehensive automated solution that would allow firms to run energy modeling analysis without costly consultants, more quickly, and through an interface that would be easy enough for an architectural intern to use.

So far there seems to be serious demand for the product, with the company already boasting an impressive roster of customers that includes several of the country’s largest architecture firms, such as HGA, HKS and Cooper Carry. And the platform has delivered compelling results – for example, one residential developer was able to identify energy solutions that cost $2 million less than the building’s original model. With the funds from its seed round, Cove.Tool plans further enhance its sales effort while continuing to develop additional features for the platform.

Changing decision-making and fighting climate change

The value proposition Cove.Tool hopes to offer is clear – the company wants to make it easier, faster and cheaper for firms to use innovative design processes that help identify the most cost-effective and energy-efficient solutions for their buildings, all while reducing the risks of redesign, delay and budget overruns.

Longer-term, the company hopes that it can help the building industry move towards more innovative project processes and more informed decision-making while making a serious dent in the fight against emissions.

“We want to change the way decisions are made. We want decisions to move away from being just intuition to become more data-driven.” The co-founders told TechCrunch.

“Ultimately we want to help stop climate change one building at a time. Stopping climate change is such a huge undertaking but if we can change the behavior of buildings it can be a bit easier. Architects and engineers are working hard but they need help and we need to change.”

 


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