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Main article: Startups

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Jupiter Networks invests $2.5M in enterprise tech accelerator Alchemist

03:42 | 23 January

Alchemist, which began as an experiment to better promote enterprise entrepreneurs, has morphed into a well-established Silicon Valley accelerator.

To prove it, San Francisco-based Alchemist is announcing a fresh $2.5 million investment ahead of its 20th demo day on Wednesday. Jupiter Networks, a networking and cybersecurity solutions business, has led the round, with participation from Siemens’ venture capital unit Next47.

Launched in 2012 by former Draper Fisher Jurvetson investor Ravi Belani, Alchemist provides participating teams with six months of mentorship and a $36,000 investment. Alchemist admits companies whose revenue stream comes from enterprises, not consumers, with a bent toward technical founders.

According to numbers provided by the accelerator, dubbed the “Y Combinator of Enterprise,” 115 Alchemist portfolio companies have gone on to raise $556 million across several VC deals. Another 25 have been acquired, including S4 Capital’s recent $150 million acquisition of media consultancy MightyHive, Alchemist’s largest exit to date.

Other notable alums include Rigetti Computing, LaunchDarkly, which helps startups soft-launch features and drone startup Matternet.

Alchemist has previously raised venture capital funding, including a $2 million financing in 2017 led by GE and an undisclosed investment from Salesforce.

Nineteen companies will demo products onstage tomorrow. You can live stream Alchemist’s 20th demo day here.



To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

23:36 | 22 January

Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the US.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“UbiquitiLink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.



Mooncard raises $5.7 million for its expense platform

19:45 | 22 January

French startup Mooncard raised a $5.7 million funding round (€5 million) from Raise Ventures, Aglaé Ventures and business angels. The company provides a service to track and manage your company’s expenses with the help of good old plastic cards.

Corporate credit cards aren’t as widespread in France as in the U.S. and other countries. That’s why fintech startups have been trying to find a way to streamline expenses for French startups.

Mooncard lets you get as many cards as you want for your team. Managers can set different kinds of rules with different limits and validation processes.

Every time you pay with your card, you get a text message with a link. When you tap on the link, you can take a photo of the receipt, add details and submit your expense. Your accounting team can see expenses in real time and share reports with accountants.

Behind the scene, companies create a specific account for expenses and top up that account. Mooncard works with Wirecard for the banking integration.

So far, 1,000 companies are using Mooncard, such as Air France, Vinci, Virtuo, Ledger and others. Companies pay between €13 and €15 per user per month, and Mooncard plans to have 200,000 users within three years.



Fresh tickets and New VC partners for the TechCrunch Winter Party

19:30 | 22 January

We’ve got a double dose of exciting news for you, startup fans. First, we’re thrilled to announce that investment firms August Capital, SV Angel and Uncork Capital have partnered with us for the 2nd Annual TechCrunch Winter Party at Galvanize on February 8. And second, today we released into the wild another fresh, though limited, batch of tickets.

If you haven’t snagged a ticket to this Silicon Valley shindig, take heed. This is the fourth week we’ve released tickets, and they’ve been flying off the proverbial shelf. They’re strictly first-come-first-serve, so do yourself a favor: Buy your ticket today and avoid a severe case of FOMO — fear of missing out.

Our Winter Party is the perfect time to kick back and connect with your people in a relaxed fashion while enjoying delicious hors d’oeuvres and creative cocktails. It’s a celebration of the early-stage startup community, which, we might add, shows up in force. Last year, nearly 1,000 of Silicon Valley’s finest rocked Galvanize, the multi-level venue, to its roots.

No TechCrunch event would be an event without ample opportunity to network and build potentially life-changing business relationships. And who wouldn’t want the opportunity to converse with such an influential crowd — including investors and partners from August Capital, SV Angel and Uncork Capital?

Conversations flow easily in such a convivial setting, but if you want to level up on your exposure, consider buying a demo table. Only a handful of promising startups will display their wares, so book your demo table now. And bring your friends, because the $1,500 price also includes three tickets.

OK, here are the nitty-gritty party details.

When: Friday, February 8, 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Where: Galvanize, 44 Tehama St., San Francisco, CA 94105

Ticket price: $85

Along with great food, drinks and world-class networking, you can expect plenty of games, activities, photo ops and giveaways. Come and get your TechCrunch swag and who knows, you might even win door prizes — like tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

We’ll keep rolling out tickets until they’re gone, but why take the risk? The 2nd Annual TechCrunch Winter Party goes down on February 8, and you simply don’t want to miss out on a fun night of opportunity. Buy your ticket now and cross it off your to-do list.



Varsity Tutors acquires Veritas Prep to expand into live online classes

19:08 | 22 January

Varsity Tutors, the online learning platform that launched in 2011, has today announced the acquisition of Veritas Prep.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but, according to the press release, the Veritas Prep team will remain at its Calabasas, CA office and that the product will continue on as a separate brand.

Veritas Prep launched in 2002 with a suite of test prep courses. Over the years, Veritas built out its online live classes as well as a business around admissions consulting. As Varsity Tutors focuses on geographical and product expansion, the Veritas Prep acquisition allows the company to get into live online courses (alongside one-to-one tutoring).

“Over the course of its 17 years, Veritas has built up a lot of expertise in how to deliver exceptional live online classes,” said Varsity Tutors founder and CEO Chuck Cohn. “We looked at a lot of companies out there, and we saw huge potential to really accelerate our own product development cycle by buying that expertise.”

Varsity Tutors originally launched with a platform that connected students with tutors for IRL study sessions and lessons. Over time, that product has transformed to offer fully on-demand digital lessons with tutors via live video chat, complete with whiteboard functionality, doc editing and other tools. Students can also access free online content (sans instructor) through Varsity Tutors’ Learning Tools.

Cohn says that the Live Learning platform can connect a student with a tutor and begin a session in as few as 20 seconds, and that more than 75 percent of new customers are opting for online/mobile tutoring instead of in-person.

Beyond expanding the product, Varsity Tutors is also looking to expand the number of subjects it offers to customers. Right now, the company offers more than 1000 different subjects (including traditional learning) with more than 250 subjects available for instant tutoring on the Live Learning platform.

Varsity Tutors has raised a total of $107 million from investors like Learn Capital, CZI, and TCV. This marks the company’s second acquisition, with Varsity Tutors buying First Tutors in the UK in 2018 to kickstart geographic expansion.

The 600-employee company has more than 40,000 tutors on the platform and has provided more than 4 million hours of live one-on-one instruction/tutoring since launch.



Adtech veteran Marcus Startzel becomes CEO at Whitebox

19:00 | 22 January

Marcus Startzel is moving from the adtech to ecommerce: He’s becoming the new CEO at Whitebox.

One of his first tasks, apparently, will be raising a Series A.

Startzel was previously an executive at AppNexus, which he joined after the acquisition of MediaGlu, where he was CEO. (He departed AppNexus after it was bought by AT&T.) He’s also had senior roles at Millennial Media and Advertising.com.

Whitebox, meanwhile, was founded in 2013 by previous CEO Rob Wray. The company helps businesses manage some of the most challenging parts of ecommerce — for example, it handles warehousing and fulfillment, while also creating and optimizing listings on Amazon, eBay and the seller’s own website.

Startzel said he was attracted to the company because it taps into broader trends around the growth of ecommerce, and because of the opportunity provided by all of Whitebox’s data around “finding the best way to get the product to the consumer.” He also said he was impressed by the recent hiring of Chief Operating Officer Rob Hahn and Chief Data Officer Andrew Bignell, both from Amazon.

And while this may seem like a big change from his previous roles, Startzel said he’s still drawing on his leadership experience, and on his approach of “just understanding the market from a customer lens, just being customer focused when you’re a brand.”

“I’m excited to sell products, not just advertise them,” he added.

Wray, meanwhile, will remain at Whitebox as its chief product officer.

“We started Whitebox because brands were getting crushed by the enormous complexity
of selling online,” he said in a statement. “Brands need a unified approach to ecommerce to scale while lowering costs. We are thrilled to have Marcus join and apply his knowledge and experience.”



Wynd raises $82 million for its store management service

18:03 | 22 January

French startup Wynd raised another $82 million (€72 million) from Natixis, Sofina and BNF capital. The company started with a point-of-sale solution for restaurants and other brick-and-mortar stores. It now provides a one-stop-shop for all your digital needs when it comes to managing your offline and online sales.

The startup has raised $127 million in total (€112 million) from today’s new investors as well as Sodexo, Orange and Alven.

Wynd provides a software-as-a-service platform for everything that can be powered by computers. The service manages your inventory, handles orders, payments and tells your staff what they’re supposed to do to prepare orders for your customers.

Everything is omnichannel, which means that an online sale and an offline sale are handled the same way in the system — there’s just a different parameter when it comes to delivery. Your inventory is unified across your e-commerce websites and stores. And Wynd can also replace your product information management service.

If you’re already using other services for some parts of your business, Wynd has an API and integrates with third-party services. For instance, you can connect Wynd with your ERP.

Wynd also lets you get detailed reports on your products and your staff. On this front, Wynd competes with Excel and good old static exports. Having dynamic dashboards can help you be more reactive and understand why a specific product is taking off for example.

And now, big brands are using Wynd to manage their sales, such as Carrefour, Total, MK2 and Monceau Fleurs. 30 percent of the company’s revenue comes from other countries.



Citizens Reserve is building a supply chain platform on the blockchain

17:04 | 22 January

Citizens Reserve, a Bay Area startup, has a broad goal of digitizing the supply chain. Last fall, the company launched the Alpha version of Suku, a Supply Chain as a Service platform built on the blockchain. Today, it announced a partnership with Smartrac, an RFID tag manufacturer, based in Amsterdam, as a key identity piece for the platform.

Companies use RFID to track products from field or factory to market. Eric Piscini, CEO at Citizens says this partnership helps solve a crucial piece of digitizing the supply chain. It provides a way to trace products on their journey to market, and ensure their provenance, whether that is to be sure no labor was exploited in production, environmental standards were maintained or that the products were stored under the proper conditions to ensure freshness.

One of the big issues in track and trace on the supply chain is simply identifying the universe of items in motion across the world at any given moment. RFID tagging provides a way to give each of these items a digital identity, which can be placed on the blockchain to help prevent fraud. Once you have an irrefutable digital identity, it solves a big problem around digitizing the supply chain.

He said this is all part of a broader effort to move the supply chain to the digital realm by building a platform on the blockchain. This not only provides an irrefutable, traceable digital record, it can have all kinds of additional benefits like reducing theft and fraud and ensuring provenance.

There are so many parties involved in this process from farmers and manufacturers to customs authorities to shipping and container companies and logistics companies moving the products to market to the stores that sell the goods. Getting all of the various parties involved in the supply chain to move to a blockchain solution remains a huge challenge.

Today’s partnership offers one way to help build an identity mechanism for Citizens Reserve’s solution. The company is also working on other partnerships to help solve other problems like warehouse management and logistics.

The company currently has 11 employees based in Los Gatos, California. It has raised $11 million, according to Piscini.



Adjust expands its anti-ad fraud tech by acquiring Unbotify

17:00 | 22 January

Adjust, a Berlin-headquartered company focused on mobile ad measurement and fraud prevention, is acquiring bot detection startup Unbotify.

Founded in 2012, Adjust has become increasingly focused on ad fraud, and in fact created an industry group called the Coalition Against Ad Fraud a little over a year ago. Co-founder and CTO Paul Müller argued that although the industry has become increasingly concerned about fraud, Adjust has led the way in taking a more proactive approach: “Instead of just telling our clients, ‘Hey, you just spent money on fraud,’ we actively intervened and rejected attribution to a fraudulent source.”

In Müller’s view, Unbotify fits in with the company’s broader philosophy because the Israeli startup isn’t just trying to detect bots — it also “produces explainable results,” providing a clear explanation of why an impression couldn’t have come from a real human being.

“We strongly believe fraud isn’t a problem that can be solved with a magical black box or eight ball,” he said. “Fraud should not be an opinion. We believe in clear, transparent measurement of why something is fraud.”

Adjust co-founder and CEO Christian Henschel said the entire 25-person Unbotify team will be joining the company, and will continue working as an independent office in Tel Aviv. In fact, Adjust plans to double the size of the team by the end of the year.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. Unbotify was founded in 2015 by Yaron Oliker and Alon Dayan. According to Crunchbase, it raised $2 million in funding from Maverick Ventures Israel.

Ultimately, Henschel said, “What we’d like to achieve is to end fraud for digital media.”

Not that they think that Adjust alone can put a stop to all fraud. Instead, they hope to simply make it too costly and difficult for fraudsters to target Adjust customers.

“If you have a lot of houses on the street, and some of the doors are heavily fortified, most of the time [the thieves] will go with the door leaning open,” Müller said. “For us, the goal is not to eliminate fraud on idealistic level, but actually to make it financially unviable.”

The announcement comes just a month after Adjust announced it was buying data aggregation company Acquired.io.



The Pill Club raises $51M as VCs find new opportunities in women’s health

15:00 | 22 January

Through telemedicine and direct-to-consumer sales platforms, startups are streamlining the historically arduous process of accessing contraception.

The latest effort to secure a significant financing round is The Pill Club, an online birth control prescription and delivery service. Consumer-focused investor VMG Partners has led its $51 million Series B, with participation from new investors GV and ACME Capital (formerly known as Sherpa Capital), and existing investors Base10 Partners and Shasta Ventures. The Pill Club declined to disclose its valuation.

Launched in 2016 in San Carlos, California, The Pill Club couples healthcare services with at-home delivery, reaching customers in all 50 states. With a team of doctors, nurses and patient care coordinators, the startup operates its own pharmacy and is licensed to prescribe medication in 35 states. With the new funding, which brings its total raised to $67 million, founder and chief executive officer Nick Chang said he plans to scale the business 50 percent and expand its prescription service across the entire U.S.

“At the end of the day, our company is about empowering women,” Chang told TechCrunch. “What does that mean? It means empowering our patients to make their own healthcare decisions and making reproductive healthcare more common — something to not be shy about or worried about.”

Chang, who has spent his career in medicine and holds an M.D. from Duke University, previously founded Ganogen. The business, which sought to facilitate patient’s access to organ donors, ultimately shut down but was a catalyst to The Pill Club’s formation, as were experiences from Chang’s youth.

“I [grew] up with an older sister who was on birth control since she was 14 for menstrual regulation,” Chang said. “She really felt embarrassed to pick up the medication and to talk to anyone about it and that was really insightful for me. There are so many hurdles in accessing birth control besides clinics being around.”

Some 67 million women between the ages of 13 to 44 live in the U.S.; 19 million of them live in contraceptive deserts, or areas that lack reasonable access to public clinics. The Pill Club wants to eliminate those deserts, as do other companies in the digital health arena.

Digital health has remained one of the hottest destinations for VC investment. In 2018, investors put about $4.5 billion into U.S. companies in the sector, a 17 percent increase year-over-year, according to PitchBook data. Telemedicine startups garnered a record $1.25 billion in funding in that timeframe thanks to large financings for industry leader Oscar, a health insurance startup that raised $540 million in 2018 alone; as well as an $88 million Series A for newcomer Roman, which offers a cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction.

Startups focused on women’s health, meanwhile, have continued to garner more attention from VCs. These companies, including The Pill Club and comepetitor Nurx, have not only benefited from the rapid rise of telehealth, but also from a societal shift sparked in part by President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers’ attempts to limit women’s access to birth control.

“People want to talk about this,” Chang said. “With so much happening from Hollywood to politics … it’s really got some people to say ‘ok, we really need to talk about what we are prioritizing as a society.'”

In addition to accelerating the expansion of its 260-person team, The Pill Club plans to use the investment to explore launching more services within women’s healthcare and to broaden the educational content it offers its customers.

“This is just the beginning of a much broader and bigger movement,” Chang said.


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