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Main article: Europe

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Perlego raises $9M Series A for its textbook subscription service

12:00 | 19 November

Perlego, the textbook subscription service, has raised $9 million in Series A funding.

Backing the round is Charlie Songhurst, Dedicated VC, and Thomas Leysen (Chairman of Mediahuis and Umicore). Perlego’s existing investors including ADV, Simon Franks and Alex Chesterman also reinvested on a pro-rata basis.

London-based Perlego says the additional funding will be used to develop the next generation of Perlego’s “smarter learning platform,” including adding new features that simplify and enhance the learning experience, as well as content libraries in non-English languages to enable further expansion to “strategic” European markets beyond its U.K. roots.

Pitched as akin to a “Spotify for textbooks,” Perlego enables students, and also professionals, who now make up 30% of users, to access textbooks on a subscription basis.

It houses over 300,000 eBooks, from over 2,300 publishers, and the service is cross-device — via the web and iOS and Android apps — and available in multiple languages. Along with U.K. publishers, Perlego now also includes content from key publishers in Germany, the Nordics and Italy.

For the students, the draw is obvious: text books are increasingly expensive to purchase, and public libraries are under resourced. In the U.K., Perlego gives readers access to its entire digital library for £12 per month. As long as the needed text books are available on the service, that is infinitely more affordable.

For publishers, Perlego claims to offer a distribution method that stems revenue losses caused by piracy and the buoyant used text book market — hence the comparison to Spotify’s positioning.

Publishers such as Pearson, Cengage and McGraw Hill are already on board, Perlego says it is seeing a 116% increase in new subscribers month-on-month, though it isn’t breaking out subscriber numbers.

 


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Luko raises $22 million to improve home insurance

01:00 | 19 November

French startup Luko has raised a $22 million Series A round led by Accel (€20 million). Founders Fund and Speedinvest are also participating in today’s funding round.

When you rent a place in France, you have to provide a certificate to your landlord saying that you are covered with a home insurance product. And of course, you might want to insure your place if you own it.

While the market is huge, legacy insurance companies still dominate it. That’s why Luko wants to shake things up in three different ways.

First, it’s hard to sign up to home insurance in France. It usually involves a lot of emails, a printer, some signatures, etc. It can quickly add up if you want to change your coverage level or add some options.

As expected, Luko’s signup process is pretty straightforward. You fill up a form on the company’s website and you get an insurance certificate minutes later.

Luko partners with La Parisienne Assurances to issue insurance contracts. So far, 15,000 people have signed up to Luko.

Second, if there’s some water damage or a fire, it can take a lot of time to get it fixed. Worse, if somebody breaks into your place, you’re not going to get your money back that quickly.

Luko wants to speed things up. You can make a claim via chat, over the phone or with a video call using the mobile app. The company tries its best to detect fraud and pay a claim as quickly as possible. Luko also recently announced an integration with Lydia, a popular peer-to-peer payment app in France, so that your payment is instant.

Third, Luko has a bold vision to make home insurance even more effective. The startup wants to detect issues before it’s too late. For instance, you could imagine receiving a water meter from Luko to detect leaks, or a door sensor to detect when somebody is trying to get in. We’ll find out if people actually want to put connected objects everywhere.

Finally, Luko has partnered with a handful of nonprofits to redistribute some of its revenue — it has received the BCorp certification. The startup makes revenue by taking a flat fee on your monthly subscription. If there’s money left at the end of the year, Luko donates it to charities. Investors signed a pledge so that Luko doesn’t trade this model for growth.

 


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Heetch adds $4 million to its Series B round

11:30 | 18 November

Ride-hailing service Heetch has added a new investor to its $38 million Series B round. AfricInvest is investing another $4 million in the startup — in total, Heetch has raised a $42 million Series B round. Previous investors in the Series B round include Cathay Innovation, Idinvest and Total Ventures.

Heetch first started as a pure peer-to-peer ride-hailing platform. Anyone could become a driver, anyone could order a ride. After some regulatory issues in France, Heetch now uses a hybrid approach. It partners with professional drivers in some markets, it partners with local taxis and even moto-taxis in others.

In its home market France, the company competes directly with Uber, Kapten and other traditional ride-hailing apps. It takes a smaller cut than many of its competitors (15%) and users can pay both in cash or card.

According to the company, Heetch is one of the top three companies in the nine French cities where it operates (Paris, Lyon, Lille, Nice, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Nantes). Heetch also operates in Belgium.

More recently, the company has expanded to other markets with a focus on French-speaking Africa. It is currently live in Morocco, Algeria and Cameroon. In Morocco, Heetch has partnered with major taxi unions to let people book taxis through its app. It is now the only legal ride-sharing app.

In Douala, Cameroon, the company has built a moto-taxi service. The company insists that it is training drivers and moto-taxis are equipped with helmets as there are many accidents.

Up next, Heetch plans to expand to six additional countries in 2020, including Tunisia and Senegal.

 


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More layoffs at pivoting London edtech startup pi-top

21:28 | 15 November

London edtech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from a “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market”.

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract. pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the UK office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region”.

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the US department for education under secretary of state, Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. edtech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary edtech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200k to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community”, as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4M in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability”, as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.

 


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

11:00 | 15 November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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This ride-hailing PR pitch shows platforms and digital campaign ‘dark arts’ want democracy to be pay to play

02:10 | 15 November

A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.

The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.

In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).

In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.

The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.

The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.

Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.

The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.

Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.

Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.

The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.

“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.

Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”

“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.

A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.

“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.

We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.

It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.

Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.

It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.

The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.

The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.

Propaganda as a service

The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.

In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.

Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.

At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.

Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)

Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.

Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.

“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”

Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.

“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.

“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”

Platform power without responsibility

Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.

Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.

The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.

The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)

Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)

While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.

Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.

Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.

However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.

Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.

And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.

Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.

 


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Google finishes the install of its private Curie cable, announces Panama branch

20:30 | 14 November

Google today announced that it has finished the install and test of its private Curie cable. When it was announced, Curie, which connects the U.S. to Chile, was the company’s third private cable. Since then, it has announced two more, Dunant and Equiano, which will connect the U.S. to Europe and Portugal to South Africa. The 10,500 kilometers long cable will offer a total capacity of 72Tbps and will go online in Q2 of 2020. Right now, Google’s teams are working on connecting the cable to its own network.

In addition, Google also today announced that Curie will get a branch to Panama. “Once operational, this branch will enhance connectivity and bandwidth to Central America, and increase our ability to connect to other networks in the region, providing resiliency to our global cloud infrastructure,” the company says in today’s announcement.

For Curie’s Panama branch, Google will once again work with SubCom, the same engineering firm that helped it build the rest of the cable. SubCom is also working with Google on the Dunant, while Google opted to partner with Alcatel Submarine Networks for the Equiano cable to South Africa.

While Google is also partnering with other technology firms to share bandwidth on other cables, these private cables give it full control over all of the resources. The company also argues that owning and operating its own cables adds another layer of security, on top of all the other benefits.

 


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Backed by Serena Williams and Usain Bolt, Let’s Do This raises $15M from EQT

20:02 | 14 November

Back in September, endurance events marketplace Let’s Do This (a YC alumni) raised a $5m seed round from a number of US investors, including Olypmic star Usain Bolt and tennis star Serena Williams. As much as I’d like to get excited, this is slightly par for the course for a lot of sports-oriented startups which catch the eye of a celebrity. Not that they are without merit, of course.

Suffice it to say, their sports stars, plus a strong push to get funding from Silicon Valley has landed the startup with a $15m Series A round led by European/US VC EQT, with participation of the previous investors including Trulia founder Pete Flint, YCombinator, alongside, yes, you guessed it, Usain Bolt and Serena Williams .

The platform lists 30,000 races of all distances and disciplines and claims to be the largest marketplace for endurance events in the world, offering key information about the races and exclusive booking perks for members such as free cancellation protection. It recently agreed a partnership with Hearst to power all race listings across Runner’s World, Men’s Health and Women’s Health in the US and the UK.

The startup is set to expand its team of sport enthusiasts across its San Francisco and London offices. The company was founded by University of Cambridge graduates Alex Rose and Sam Browne – both passionate runners and cyclists who had experienced the arduous process of discovering and entering events firsthand.

The Let’s Do This algorithm uses data points from fitness tracking, race history, social connections and more, to personalize race recommendations. Part of the marketing story is that people are 12.5 times more likely to develop a fitness habit after 12 months from signing up to a race than from joining a gym.

Serena Williams, the 22 time Grand Slam Champion, commented: “I’ve seen first-hand the incredible impact these events can have on making people fitter, healthier and happier. I love that Let’s Do This is not only making events like these more accessible but also helping to support athletes of all different fitness levels. Women are especially less likely to participate in marathons and obstacle races, so it’s really important there’s a platform encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and make a positive difference in their lives.”

Usain Bolt said in a statement: “Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to inspire people to follow their dreams, get off the couch and get exercising… It’s a really natural fit with what I care about and what I believe in, so I am very happy to be supporting their mission to inspire more people to have epic experiences.”

Founder Sam Browne says the quick fundraising has come about in part because “The market’s big, affluent and we’re already the dominant marketplace in it.”

 


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Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

13:27 | 14 November

One of the bigger trends in enterprise software has been the emergence of startups building tools to make the benefits of artificial intelligence technology more accessible to non-tech companies. Today, one that has built a platform to apply power of machine learning and natural language processing to massive documents of unstructured data has closed a round of funding as it finds strong demand for its approach.

Eigen Technologies, a London-based startup whose machine learning engine helps banks and other businesses that need to extract information and insights from large and complex documents like contracts, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million in funding, a Series B that values the company at around $150 million – $180 million.

The round was led by Lakestar and Dawn Capital, with Temasek and Goldman Sachs Growth Equity (which co-led its Series A) also participating. Eigen has now raised $55 million in total.

Eigen today is working primarily in the financial sector — its offices are smack in the middle of The City, London’s financial center — but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding the scope of the platform to cover other verticals such as insurance and healthcare, two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how its presented, full of essential fine print, and is typically a strain on an organisation’s resources to be handled correctly, and is often a disaster if it is not.

The focus up to now on banks and other financial businesses has had a lot of traction. It says its customer base now includes 25% of the world’s G-SIB institutions (that is, the world’s biggest banks), along with others who work closely with them like Allen & Overy and Deloitte. Since June 2018 (when it closed its Series A round), Eigen has seen recurring revenues grow sixfold with headcount — mostly data scientists and engineers — double. While Eigen doesn’t disclose specific financials, you can the growth direction that contributed to the company’s valuation.

The basic idea behind Eigen is that it focuses what co-founder and CEO Lewis Liu describes as “small data”. The company has devised a way to “teach” an AI to read a specific kind of document — say, a loan contract — by looking at a couple of examples and training on these. The whole process is relatively easy to do for a non-technical person: you figure out what you want to look for and analyse, find the examples using basic search in two or three documents, and create the template which can then be used across hundreds or thousands of the same kind of documents (in this case, a loan contract).

Eigen’s work is notable for two reasons. First, typically machine learning and training and AI requires hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of examples to “teach” a system before it can make decisions that you hope will mimic those of a human. Eigen requires a couple of examples (hence the “small data” approach).

Second, an industry like finance has many pieces of sensitive data (either because its personal data, or because it’s proprietary to a company and its business), and so there is an ongoing issue of working with AI companies that want to “anonymise” and ingest that data. Companies simply don’t want to do that. Eigen’s system essentially only works on what a company provides, and that stays with the company.

Eigen was founded in 2014 by Dr. Lewis Z. Liu (CEO) and Jonathan Feuer (a managing partner at CVC Capital technologies who is the company’s chairman), but its earliest origins go back 15 years earlier, when Liu — a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the US — was working as a “data entry monkey” (his words) at a tire manufacturing plant in New Jersey, where he lived, ahead of starting university at Harvard.

A natural computing whizz who found himself building his own games when his parents refused to buy him a games console, he figured out that the many pages of printouts that he was reading and re-entering into a different computing system could be sped up with a computer program linking up the two. “I put myself out of a job,” he joked.

His educational life epitomises the kind of lateral thinking that often produces the most interesting ideas. Liu went on to Harvard to study not computer science, but physics and art. Doing a double major required working on a thesis that merged the two disciplines together, and Liu built “electrodynamic equations that composed graphical structures on the fly” — basically generating art using algorithms — which he then turned into a “Turing test” to see if people could detect pixelated actual work with that of his program. Distil this, and Liu was still thinking about patterns in analog material that could be re-created using math.

Then came years at McKinsey in London (how he arrived on these shores) during the financial crisis where the results of people either intentionally or mistakenly overlooking crucial text-based data produced stark and catastrophic results. “I would say the problem that we eventually started to solve for at Eigen became for tangible,” Liu said.

Then came a physics PhD at Oxford where Liu worked on X-ray lasers that could be used to bring down the complexity and cost of making microchips, cancer treatments and other applications.

While Eigen doesn’t actually use lasers, some of the mathematical equations that Liu came up with for these have also become a part of Eigen’s approach.

“The whole idea [for my PhD] was, ‘how do we make this cheeper and more scalable?'” he said. “We built a new class of X-ray laser apparatus, and we realised the same equations could be used in pattern matching algorithms, specifically around sequential patterns. And out of that, and my existing corporate relationships, that’s how Eigen started.”

Five years on, Eigen has added a lot more into the platform beyond what came from Liu’s original ideas. There are more data scientists and engineers building the engine around the basic idea, and customising it to work with more sectors beyond finance. 

There are a number of AI companies building tools for non-technical business end-users, and one of the areas that comes close to what Eigen is doing is robotic process automation, or RPA. Liu notes that while this is an important area, it’s more about reading forms more readily and providing insights to those. The focus of Eigen in more on unstructured data, and the ability to parse it quickly and securely using just a few samples.

Liu points to companies like IBM (with Watson) as general competitors, while startups like Luminance is another taking a similar approach to Eigen by addressing the issue of parsing unstructured data in a specific sector (in its case, currently, the legal profession).

Stephen Nundy, a partner and the CTO of Lakestar, said that he first came into contact with Eigen when he was at Goldman Sachs, where he was a managing director overseeing technology, and the bank engaged it for work.

“To see what these guys can deliver, it’s to be applauded,” he said. “They’re just picking out names and addresses. We’re talking deep, semantic understanding. Other vendors are trying to be everything to everybody, but Eigen has found market fit in financial services use cases, and it stands up against the competition. You can see when a winner is breaking away from the pack and it’s a great signal for the future.”

 


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Johannes Reck from GetYourGuide to talk about reaching unicorn status at Disrupt Berlin

12:00 | 14 November

Earlier this year, GetYourGuide raised a gigantic $484 million funding round with SoftBank’s Vision Fund leading the round. Now that the German startup has reached a valuation well over the $1 billion mark, it’s time to look back at the company’s impressive trajectory. That’s why I’m excited to announce that GetYourGuide co-founder and CEO Johannes Reck is joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

At first, people started booking flights and train tickets on online platforms. Then, they started booking hotel rooms and Airbnb apartments. But going somewhere is just step one. You also need to figure out what you’re going to do when you arrive in a city you don’t know.

GetYourGuide lets you book experiences, from sightseeing tours to tickets for attractions and others. Behind the scene, the company operates a marketplace that matches third parties with travelers.

But the startup now wants to go one step further and build a catalog of “Originals” tour experiences, such as a ‘GetYourGuide Instagram Tour of Bali’, which is probably a lot more appealing to young travelers compared to traditional travel agencies.

GetYourGuide’s metrics are mindboggling. Back in May, the company offered 50,000 experiences and had sold 25 million tickets in total. And I’m sure those numbers are even higher today.

The startup has a shot at becoming a cultural phenomenon and influence the way we travel — just like Airbnb did with its peer-to-peer rental platform. And I can’t wait to hear Johannes Reck tell us how to grow such a big marketplace with everyone’s best interests in mind.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion — and many others. The conference will take place December 11-12.

In addition to panels and fireside chats, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield to compete for the highly coveted Battlefield Cup.


Johannes Reck is the Chief Executive Officer at GetYourGuide. He leads the company’s long-term vision and strategy.

Johannes co-founded GetYourGuide in 2009 while attending the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and has grown the company into the leading booking platform for incredible travel experiences.

Under Johannes’ leadership, over 30 million tickets have been booked to date via the GetYourGuide website, mobile app, and partnership network. GetYourGuide has raised over $650M from investors such as the SoftBank Vision Fund, Battery Ventures and KKR. Johannes leads GetYourGuide’s 550-person global team from its headquarters in Berlin, Germany.

Johannes originally hails from Cologne, Germany and holds an M.Sc. in Biochemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

 


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