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Main article: Startups

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Cowboy, the Belgian e-bike startup, raises €10M Series A

21:00 | 22 October

Cowboy, the Belgium startup that’s designed and sells a smarter electronic bicycle, has raised €10 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Tiger Global Management, with participation from previous backers Index Ventures, and Hardware Club. The new capital will be used to scale operations, and expand beyond Belgum into Germany, U.K., Netherlands, and France.

Founded in January 2017 by Adrien Roose and Karim Slaoui, who both previously co-founded Take Eat Easy (an early Deliveroo competitor), and Tanguy Goretti, who was previously co-founded ridesharing startup Djump, Cowboy set out to build and sell direct a better designed and e-bike.

This included making the Cowboy lighter in weight and more stylish than models from incumbents, and adding automatic motor assistance. The latter utilises built-in sensor technology that measures speed and torque, and adjusts to pedaling style and force to deliver an added boost of motor-assisted speed at key moments e.g. when you start pedaling, accelerate or go uphill.

In addition, Cowboy’s “smart” features powered by the Cowboy app enables the device to be switched on and off, track location, provide “ride stats,” and support remote troubleshooting and software updates. A theft detection feature is also promised soon.

“We designed the Cowboy bike to appeal specifically to people who are yet to be convinced that electric bikes are a practical and mainstream mode of transport,” says Adrien Roose, Cowboy’s CEO, in a statement.

“We focused our attention on the three main reasons people are reluctant to purchase electric bikes: high cost, poor design and redundant technology – or a combination of the above – and we set about fixing them all”.

 


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Lime is building its first scooter “lifestyle brand store” in LA

20:58 | 22 October

How can Lime differentiate its scooters and bikes from the piles of Birds and Spins filling Los Angeles sidewalks? Apparently with a physical storefront where it can convince customers of the wonders of on-demand mobility. According to a job listing from Lime seeking a “Retail Store Manager”, the startup plans to open a “lifestyle brand store in Santa Monica” that “will place heavy importance on brand experience and customer engagement.”

It seems Lime will rent vehicles directly from the store given the full-time manager’s role includes “monitoring inventory levels” as well as daily operations, and employee recruiting. They’ll also be throwing live events to build Lime’s hype. Given the company is calling this a lifestyle store, the focus will likely be on showing how Lime’s scooters and bikes can become part of people’s lives and enhance their happiness, rather than on maximizing rental volume.

A rendering of Lime’s new office it’s buidling in San Francisco. The design could hint at what Lime wants to do with its retail store branding.

The listing was first spotted by

, a transportation researcher for consultancy Steer, and later by
. We’ve reached out to Lime and will update if we hear back from the company. Glassdoor shows that the store manager job was posted over 30 days ago, and the site estimates the potential salary at $41,000 to $74,000.

The sheer number of Lime scooters in Santa Monica where the store will arise is already staggering. Supply doesn’t seem to be bottleneck as it is in some other cities. Instead, it’s the fierce competition from hometown startups like local favorite Bird that Lime wants to overcome through brick-and-mortar marketing. Often times you’ll see scooters from Lime and Bird lined up right next to each other. And with similarly cheap pricing, the decision of which to use comes down to brand affinity. According to Apptopia, Bird’s monthly U.S. downloads surpassed Lime’s in July for the first time ever, despite Lime offering bikes as well as scooters.

There are plenty of people who still have never tried an on-demand electric scooter, and going through the process of renting, unlocking, and riding them might be daunting to some. If employees at a physical store can teach people that it’s not too difficult to jump aboard, Lime could become their default scooter. This of course comes with risks too, as electric scooters can be dangerous to the novice or uncoordinated. More aggressive in-person marketing might pull in users who were apprehensive about scooting for the right reason — concerns about safety.

As cities figure out how to best regulate scooters, I hope we see a focus on uptime aka how often the scooters actually function properly. It’s common in LA to rent a scooter, then discover the handlebar is loose or the acceleration is sluggish, end the ride, and rent another scooter from the same brand or a competitor in hopes of getting one that works right. I ditched several Lime scooters like this while in LA last week.

Regulators should inquire about what percentage of scooter company fleets are broken and what percentage of rides end within 90 seconds of starting, which is typically due to a malfunctioning vehicle. Cities could then award permits to companies that keep their fleets running, rather than that litter the streets with massive paper weights, or worse, vehicles that could crash and hurt people. Scooters are fun, cheap and therefore accessible to more people than Ubers, and reduce traffic. But unless startups like Lime put a bigger focus on helments and safe riding behavior, we could trade congestion on the roads for congestion in the emergency room.

 


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Minds, the blockchain-based social network, grabs a $6M Series A

15:55 | 22 October

Minds, a decentralized social network, has raised $6 million in Series A funding from Medici Ventures, Overstock.com’s venture arm. Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne will join the Minds Board of Directors.

What is a decentralized social network? The creators, who originally crowdfunded their product, see it as an anti-surveillance, anti-censorship, and anti-“big tech” platform that ensures that no one party controls your online presence. And Minds is already seeing solid movement.

“In June 2018, Minds saw an enormous uptick in new Vietnamese of hundreds of thousands users as a direct response to new laws in the country implementing an invasive ‘cybersecurity’ law which included uninhibited access to user data on social networks like Facebook and Google (who are complying so far) and the ability to censor user content,” said Minds founder Bill Ottman.

“There has been increasing excitement in recent years over the power of blockchain technology to liberate individuals and organizations,” said Byrne. “Minds’ work employing blockchain technology as a social media application is the next great innovation toward the mainstream use of this world-changing technology.”

Interestingly, Minds is a model for the future of hybrid investing, a process of raising some cash via token and raising further cash via VC. This model ensures a level of independence from investors but also allows expertise and experience to presumably flow into the company.

Ottman, for his part, just wants to build something revolutionary.

“The rise of an open source, encrypted and decentralized social network is crucial to combat the big-tech monopolies that have abused and ignored users for years. With systemic data breaches, shadow-banning and censorship, people over the world are demanding a digital revolution. User-safety, fair economies, and global freedom of expression depend on it – we are all in this battle together,” said Ottman.

 


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Disrupt Berlin 2018 early-bird pricing ends in three days

11:00 | 22 October

What could be better than spending two adrenaline-packed days at Disrupt Berlin 2018 focused on the best of everything coming out of Europe’s early-stage startup scene? Saving up to €500 while doing it, that’s what. Just think about how much Red Bull or good German beer you could buy with that money.

Here’s the thing. Ticket prices to Disrupt Berlin will increase on 24 October, and, while attending this conference provides serious ROI even at full price, it simply doesn’t make sense to pay more than necessary. Don’t miss your chance to get in on all the Disrupt action at the lowest price possible. Beat the calendar and buy your pass right now.

One of the most exciting and time-honored events at Disrupt is Startup Battlefield, and we can’t wait to see the Berlin cohort take the stage, dazzle the judges and launch their dream on a global stage. We’re talking 15 of the most exceptional early-stage startup founders going head-to-head for glory, $50,000 in non-equity cash and life-changing investor attention. What’s not to love?

Looking for even more excitement? Head to Startup Alley, our exhibition floor and the very heart of Disrupt. You’ll find more than 400 early-stage startups showcasing the very latest tech products, platforms and services. The networking opportunities are endless. Here’s what TestCard CEO Luke Heron told us following his Disrupt Berlin 2017 experience.

“Exhibiting in Startup Alley among all these other fantastic startups has a hugely positive impact when you’re fundraising.”

If you’re wondering just how positive, Heron recently emailed to share his good news.

“We just closed $1.7 million in funding, thanks to you and your team. You guys are fantastic — the lifeblood of the startup scene.”

Not everyone goes to Disrupt looking for investors (no, really). Vlad Larin, co-founder of Zeroqode, went to help people understand the company’s no-code technology.

“Exhibiting in Startup Alley at Disrupt Berlin was the perfect place for us to start those conversations. You talk with all kinds of people looking for new ideas, collaboration and inspiration — people who want to learn and exchange ideas about the latest products and industry trends.”

TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2018 takes place 29-30 November. Whatever your reason for going, don’t spend one Euro more than necessary. Early-bird savings disappear on 24 October. Don’t wait — buy your tickets today.

 


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Early-bird pricing to Disrupt Berlin 2018 flies away in four days

11:00 | 21 October

Die uhr tickt, menschen — the clock is ticking, people. Early-bird pricing on passes to Disrupt Berlin 2018 migrates to parts unknown in just four days. If you want to join us at the Arena Berlin on 29-30 November — and save up to €500 in the process — you need to buy your pass before the 24 October deadline.

Thousands of people across Europe and beyond — founders, investors, marketers, technologists, coders, hackers — arrive ready to dive deep into the subject they love most: tech startups. Disrupt Berlin is always an exciting adventure, and we’re pumped about this year’s lineup of speakers and events.

Here’s just a quick sample of the speakers who will grace the Main Stage to share their stories and perspectives:

  • Lucas di Grassi, former F1 driver and current CEO of Roborace, will discuss how his company is merging human driving and artificial intelligence to build a better racing series.
  • Pieter van der Does, CEO of payments company Adyen, will share how the startup quietly built its empire and took a profitable company public.
  • Anne Kjaer-Riechert, founder of the ReDI School of Digital Integration, and Aline Sara, founder of NaTakallam, discuss using technology to address the world refugee crisis — specifically ReDI’s hugely successful code school for refugees and NaTakallam’s global platform for refugees to teach languages.

You don’t want to miss out on Startup Battlefield — our premier startup-pitch competition is a perennial favorite at every Disrupt event. Watch as 15 of Europe’s exceptional early-stage startup founders compete for $50,000 in non-equity cash, media and investor love and world-class bragging rights.

Over the years, Startup Battlefield alumni have gone on to become big-name tech companies — like Dropbox, Mint, Yammer and Tripit, to name but a few. Will you witness the birth of the next unicorn in Berlin?

There’s so much more to do and see at Disrupt Berlin: Q&A sessions, hands-on workshops, Startup Alley, world-class networking and the ever-popular (and insane) Disrupt After Party.

TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin 2018 goes down on 29-30 November, and the countdown to serious savings is on. Die uhr tickt — the clock is ticking. Buy your early-bird pass before 24 October and save up to €500.

 


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China is funding the future of American biotech

20:15 | 20 October

Silicon Valley is in the midst of a health craze, and it is being driven by “Eastern” medicine.

It’s been a record year for US medical investing, but investors in Beijing and Shanghai are now increasingly leading the largest deals for US life science and biotech companies. In fact, Chinese venture firms have invested more this year into life science and biotech in the US than they have back home, providing financing for over 300 US-based companies, per Pitchbook. That’s the story at Viela Bio, a Maryland-based company exploring treatments for inflammation and autoimmune diseases, which raised a $250 million Series A led by three Chinese firms.

Chinese capital’s newfound appetite also flows into the mainland. Business is booming for Chinese medical startups, who are also seeing the strongest year of venture investment ever, with over one hundred companies receiving $4 billion in investment.

As Chinese investors continue to shift their strategies towards life science and biotech, China is emphatically positioning itself to be a leader in medical investing with a growing influence on the world’s future major health institutions.

Chinese VCs seek healthy returns

We like to talk about things we can interact with or be entertained by. And so as nine-figure checks flow in and out of China with stunning regularity, we fixate on the internet giants, the gaming leaders or the latest media platform backed by Tencent or Alibaba.

However, if we follow the money, it’s clear that the top venture firms in China have actually been turning their focus towards the country’s deficient health system.

A clear leader in China’s strategy shift has been Sequoia Capital China, one of the country’s most heralded venture firms tied to multiple billion-dollar IPOs just this year.

Historically, Sequoia didn’t have much interest in the medical sector.  Health was one of the firm’s smallest investment categories, and it participated in only three health-related deals from 2015-16, making up just 4% of its total investing activity. 

Recently, however, life sciences have piqued Sequoia’s fascination, confirms a spokesperson with the firm.  Sequoia dove into six health-related deals in 2017 and has already participated in 14 in 2018 so far.  The firm now sits among the most active health investors in China and the medical sector has become its second biggest investment area, with life science and biotech companies accounting for nearly 30% of its investing activity in recent years.

Health-related investment data for 2015-18 compiled from Pitchbook, Crunchbase, and SEC Edgar

There’s no shortage of areas in need of transformation within Chinese medical care, and a wide range of strategies are being employed by China’s VCs. While some investors hope to address influenza, others are focused on innovative treatments for hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases.

For instance, according to the Chinese Journal of Cancer, in 2015, 36% of world’s lung cancer diagnoses came from China, yet the country’s cancer survival rate was 17% below the global average. Sequoia has set its sights on tackling China’s high rate of cancer and its low survival rate, with roughly 70% of its deals in the past two years focusing on cancer detection and treatment.

That is driven in part by investments like the firm’s $90 million Series A investment into Shanghai-based JW Therapeutics, a company developing innovative immunotherapy cancer treatments. The company is a quintessential example of how Chinese VCs are building the country’s next set of health startups using their international footprints and learnings from across the globe.

Founded as a joint-venture offshoot between US-based Juno Therapeutics and China’s WuXi AppTec, JW benefits from Juno’s experience as a top developer of cancer immunotherapy drugs, as well as WuXi’s expertise as one of the world’s leading contract research organizations, focusing on all aspects of the drug R&D and development cycle.

Specifically, JW is focused on the next-generation of cell-based immunotherapy cancer treatments using chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) technologies. (Yeah…I know…) For the WebMD warriors and the rest of us with a medical background that stopped at tenth-grade chemistry, CAR-T essentially looks to attack cancer cells by utilizing the body’s own immune system.

Past waves of biotech startups often focused on other immunologic treatments that used genetically-modified antibodies created in animals.  The antibodies would effectively act as “police,” identifying and attaching to “bad guy” targets in order to turn off or quiet down malignant cells.  CAR-T looks instead to modify the body’s native immune cells to attack and kill the bad guys directly.

Chinese VCs are investing in a wide range of innovative life science and biotech startups. (Photo by Eugeneonline via Getty Images)

The international and interdisciplinary pedigree of China’s new medical leaders not only applies to the organizations themselves but also to those running the show.

At the helm of JW sits James Li.  In a past life, the co-founder and CEO held stints as an executive heading up operations in China for the world’s biggest biopharmaceutical companies including Amgen and Merck.  Li was also once a partner at the Silicon Valley brand-name investor, Kleiner Perkins.

JW embodies the benefits that can come from importing insights and expertise, a practice that will come to define the companies leading the medical future as the country’s smartest capital increasingly finds its way overseas.

GV and Founders Fund look to keep the Valley competitive

Despite heavy investment by China’s leading VCs, Silicon Valley is doubling down in the US health sector.  (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JASON LEE)

Innovation in medicine transcends borders. Sickness and death are unfortunately universal, and groundbreaking discoveries in one country can save lives in the rest.

The boom in China’s life science industry has left valuations lofty and cross-border investment and import regulations in China have improved.

As such, Chinese venture firms are now increasingly searching for innovation abroad, looking to capitalize on expanding opportunities in the more mature US medical industry that can offer innovative technologies and advanced processes that can be brought back to the East.

In April, Qiming Venture Partners, another Chinese venture titan, closed a $120 million fund focused on early-stage US healthcare. Qiming has been ramping up its participation in the medical space, investing in 24 companies over the 2017-18 period.

New firms diving into the space hasn’t frightened the Bay Area’s notable investors, who have doubled down in the US medical space alongside their Chinese counterparts.

Partner directories for America’s most influential firms are increasingly populated with former doctors and medically-versed VCs who can find the best medical startups and have a growing influence on the flow of venture dollars in the US.

At the top of the list is Krishna Yeshwant, the GV (formerly Google Ventures) general partner leading the firm’s aggressive push into the medical industry.

Krishna Yeshwant (GV) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

A doctor by trade, Yeshwant’s interest runs the gamut of the medical spectrum, leading investments focusing on anything from real-time patient care insights to antibody and therapeutic technologies for cancer and neurodegenerative disorders.

Per data from Pitchbook and Crunchbase, Krishna has been GV’s most active partner over the past two years, participating in deals that total over a billion dollars in aggregate funding.

Backed by the efforts of Yeshwant and select others, the medical industry has become one of the most prominent investment areas for Google’s venture capital arm, driving roughly 30% of its investments in 2017 compared to just under 15% in 2015.

GV’s affinity for medical-investing has found renewed life, but life science is also part of the firm’s DNA.  Like many brand-name Valley investors, GV founder Bill Maris has long held a passion for the health startups.  After leaving GV in 2016, Maris launched his own fund, Section 32, focused specifically on biotech, healthcare and life sciences. 

In the same vein, life science and health investing has been part of the lifeblood for some major US funds including Founders Fund, which has consistently dedicated over 25% of its deployed capital to the space since at least 2015.

The tides may be changing, however, as the recent expansion of oversight for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) may severely impact the flow of Chinese capital into areas of the US health sector. 

Under its extended purview, CFIUS will review – and possibly block – any investment or transaction involving a foreign entity related to the production, design or testing of technology that falls under a list of 27 critical industries, including biotech research and development.

The true implications of the expanded rules will depend on how aggressively and how often CFIUS exercises its power.  But a lengthy review process and the threat of regulatory blocks may significantly increase the burden on Chinese investors, effectively shutting off the Chinese money spigot.

Regardless of CFIUS, while China’s active presence in the US health markets hasn’t deterred Valley mainstays, with a severely broken health system and an improved investment environment backed by government support, China’s commitment to medical innovation is only getting stronger.

VCs target a disastrous health system

Deficiencies in China’s health sector has historically led to troublesome outcomes.  Now the government is jump-starting investment through supportive policy. (Photo by Alexander Tessmer / EyeEm via Getty Images)

They say successful startups identify real problems that need solving. Marred with inefficiencies, poor results, and compounding consumer frustration, China’s health industry has many

Outside of a wealthy few, citizens are forced to make often lengthy treks to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals in urban centers.  Reception areas exist only in concept, as any open space is quickly filled by hordes of the concerned, sick, and fearful settling in for wait times that can last multiple days. 

If and when patients are finally seen, they are frequently met by overworked or inexperienced medical staff, rushing to get people in and out in hopes of servicing the endless line behind them. 

Historically, when patients were diagnosed, treatment options were limited and ineffective, as import laws and affordability issues made many globally approved drugs unavailable.

As one would assume, poor detection and treatment have led to problematic outcomes. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes and chronic lung disease accounts for 80% of deaths in China, according to a recent report from the World Bank

Recurring issues of misconduct, deception and dishonesty have amplified the population’s mounting frustration.

After past cases of widespread sickness caused by improperly handled vaccinations, China’s vaccine crisis reached a breaking point earlier this year.  It was revealed that 250,000 children had been given defective and fallacious rabies vaccinations, a fact that inspectors had discovered months prior and swept under the rug.

Fracturing public trust around medical treatment has serious, potentially destabilizing effects. And with deficiencies permeating nearly all aspects of China’s health and medical infrastructure, there is a gaping set of opportunities for disruptive change.

In response to these issues, China’s government placed more emphasis on the search for medical innovation by rolling out policies that improve the chances of success for health startups, while reducing costs and risk for investors.

Billions of public investment flooded into the life science sector, and easier approval processes for patents, research grants, and generic drugs, suddenly made the prospect of building a life science or biotech company in China less daunting. 

For Chinese venture capitalists, on top of financial incentives and a higher-growth local medical sector, loosening of drug import laws opened up opportunities to improve China’s medical system through innovation abroad.

Liquidity has also improved due to swelling global interest in healthcare. Plus, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange recently announced changes to allow the listing of pre-revenue biotech companies.

The changes implemented across China’s major institutions have effectively provided Chinese health investors with a much broader opportunity set, faster growth companies, faster liquidity, and increased certainty, all at lower cost.

However, while the structural and regulatory changes in China’s healthcare system has led to more medical startups with more growth, it hasn’t necessarily driven quality.

US and Western investors haven’t taken the same cross-border approach as their peers in Beijing. From talking with those in the industry, the laxity of the Chinese system, and others, have made many US investors weary of investing in life science companies overseas.

And with the Valley similarly stepping up its focus on startups that sprout from the strong American university system, bubbling valuations have started to raise concern.

But with China dedicating more and more billions across the globe, the country is determined to patch the massive holes in its medical system and establish itself as the next leader in international health innovation.

 


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Apply for free tickets to Startup Battlefield Latin America 2018

15:00 | 20 October

We’re just a few short weeks away from the inaugural Startup Battlefield Latin America 2018 that takes place November 8 at the Tomie Ohtake Institute in São Paulo, Brazil. That’s when up to 15 of Latin America’s exceptional early-stage startup founders will launch their companies to the world as they compete for cash, glory and investor love.

It promises to be a fierce competition, and we want you to come revel in the excitement, the knowledge-sharing, the networking and the opportunities. Best of all, spectator tickets are free — simply apply right here. We’ll select people in the Latin American startup scene on a first-come-first-served basis. We’ll notify all ticket winners via email.

Here’s how the Startup Battlefield format works. During three preliminary rounds, up to five startups per round will each have six minutes to pitch and present their demo before a panel of expert tech and VC judges. The judges have six minutes following each pitch to ask teams probing questions. Five of the competing startups will move on to the finals and pitch again to a new set of judges.

One finalist will be named the first TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Latin America champion and win a $25,000 non-equity cash prize and a trip for two to the next Disrupt, where they can exhibit free of charge in the Startup Alley — and possibly qualify to participate in the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt.

In-between all the fast-paced Startup Battlefield rounds, we’ve gathered an outstanding lineup of speakers to discuss a range of tech topics of interest to the LATAM region. Here’s just a sample:

Read the full Startup Battlefield LATAM 2018 agenda to learn what else we have planned throughout the day.

Don’t miss your opportunity to watch the first Startup Battlefield Latin America competition, hear dynamic speakers discuss tech and investment issues specific to Latin America and enjoy a day of networking and opportunity with like-minded entrepreneurs. It all takes place November 8, 2018, in São Paulo, Brazil. Apply for your free spectator ticket today.

 


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Domio just raised $12 million in Series A funding to build “apart hotels” across the U.S.

22:45 | 19 October

Hotels can be pricey, and and travelers are often forced to leave their rooms for basic things, like food that doesn’t come from the minibar. Yet Airbnb accommodations, which have become the go-to alternative for travelers, can be highly inconsistent.

Domio, a two-year-old, New York-based outfit, thinks there’s a third way: apartment hotels, or “apart hotels,” as the company is calling them.

The idea is to build a brand that travelers recognize as upscale yet affordable, more tech friendly than boutique hotels, and features plenty of square footage, which it expects will appeal to both families as well as companies that send teams of employees to cities and want to do it more economically.

Domio has a host of competitors, if you’ll forgive the pun. Marriott International earlier this year introduced a branded home-sharing business called Tribute Portfolio Homes wherein it says it vets, outfits and maintains homes of its choosing to hotel standards. And it is among a growing number of hotels to recognize that customers who stay in a hotel for a business trip or a family vacation might prefer a multi-bedroom apartment with hotel-like amenities.

Property management companies have been raising funding left and right for the same reason. Among them: Sonder, a four-year-old, San Francisco-based startup offering “spaces built for travel and life” that, according to Crunchbase, has raised $135 million from investors, much of it this year; TurnKey, a six-year-old, Austin, Tex.-based home rental management company that has raised $72 million from investors, including via a Series D round that closed back in March; and Vacasa, a nine-year-old, Portland, Ore.-based vacation rental management company that manages more than 10,000 properties and which just this week closed on $64 million in fresh financing that brings its total funding to $207.5 million.

That’s saying nothing of Airbnb itself, which has begun opening hotel-like branded apartment complexes that lease units to both long-term renters and short-term visitors in partnership with development partner Niido.

Whether Domio can stand out from competitors remains to be seen, but investors are happy to provide give it the financing to try. The company is today announcing that it has raised $12 million in Series A equity funding led by Tribeca Venture Partners, with participation from SoftBank Capital NY
and Loric Ventures. The round comes on the heels of Domio announcing a $50 million joint venture last month with the private equity firm Upper 90 to exclusively fund the leasing and operations of as many as  25 apartment-style hotels for group travelers. The company had also earlier raised $5 million in equity and convertible debt from angel investors in the real estate industry, so altogether, it has now amassed funding of $67 million.

Indeed, Domio thinks one advantage it may have over other home-share companies is that rather than manage the far-flung properties fo different owners, it can shave costs and improve the quality of its offerings by entering five- to 10-year leases with developers and then branding, furnishing and operating entire “apart hotel” properties.

As CEO (and former real estate banker) Jay Roberts told us earlier this week, the plan is to open up 25 of these buildings across the U.S. over the next couple of years. The units will average 1,5000 square feet and feature three bedrooms and if all goes as planned, they’ll cost 10 to 25 percent below hotel prices, too.

Domio had earlier raised $5 million in equity and convertible debt from angel investors in the real estate industry; altogether it has now amassed funding of $67 million.

 


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Lessons from building Brex into a billion-dollar startup

22:30 | 19 October

When I think about my experience as an immigrant and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I remember growing up in Brazil and how we saw tech founders and CEOs as kings. We imagined what it would be like to assume the throne.

But these weren’t just any kings. Silicon Valley was the kingdom of nerds and underdogs. We identified with these guys, they were just like us. We were fed the myth of a Silicon Valley meritocracy, and the illusion that all you needed was ambition, determination, and a good idea to meet the right person and get funded.

What we didn’t understand was that this myth was not completely rooted in reality. Not everyone has access to the American Dream, and those who do have a track record of success before they’re given their moment to prove, or in our case, pitch ourselves.

Part of this disconnect was cultural. In Brazil, when I began my first startup, Pagar.me, a payment processing company, my co-founder Pedro Franceschi and I were two 16 year-old kids who learned how to code before we were ten. While it was hard for people to take us seriously initially—I mean, would you quit your job to work for two 16 year- olds? Being so young also worked to our advantage; it revealed that we were passionate, driven, and invested in tech at an age that we didn’t need to be.

Once we got our start-up off the ground, our employees were as invested in us as we were invested in them and the company. That’s because in Brazil, most of us grew up with parents that stayed their whole lives at the same company. You grew with the company, and that’s the approach we took when it came to hiring for our first company: who did we see sharing our same vision and growing with us?

Coming to the United States was almost a completely opposite experience. The barrier of entry was much higher. You have to go to the right college, graduate from right incubator programs, develop relationships with the right VCs, and have at least one successful startup under your belt before anyone would even consider booking a meeting with you.

Pedro and I had to carefully position ourselves before we even got to the Valley. When we finally did get to the U.S., we had already launched a successful startup and we were accepted to Stanford. Soon after, we were accepted by Y-Combinator, and that’s where we built relationships with the key players that would open up the doors for future meetings.

With our current startup, Brex,  we found that there weren’t just cultural differences at play, but different approaches we needed to take in order for our business to be successful. For example, in Brazil, we bootstrapped our first startup, and as a result, we had to find our product-market fit immediately. When you are so cash-constrained, it also limits how much you can build your company, and you think in terms of short-term wins instead of sustained growth. Your growth strategy is confined and you’re constantly reacting to your immediate client demands.

In the U.S., VCs and angel-investors aren’t interested in the short-term. They’re interested in long-term growth and how you are going to deliver 10x profits over a ten year period. Our strategy could no longer be: plan as we go and grow with our customer. Instead, we needed to deliver a roadmap, and when that roadmap changed or evolved, communicate those changes and adopt a culture of transparency.   

Additionally, we learned how difficult it is to find and retain  talent in the U.S.; it can feel like a Sisyphean task. Millennials for example, spend less than two years on average at a job, and if you spend six years or more at the same company, recruiters will actually ask you: “why?” So how can you build a company for the long-term in an environment where employees are not personally invested in the growth of your company?

We also learned that many successful tech startups offer stock options to their early employees, but as the company evolves and changes over time, those same stock options are not offered to future employees. This creates the exact opposite of a meritocracy. Why would a new employee work harder, longer, and bring more to the table if you are not going to be compensated for it?

Instead of using this broken model, we have invested in paying our team higher wages upfront, and based on performance, we award our team members with stock options. We want to be a company that people are proud of working at longterm, and we want to create a culture that is merit-based.

While some of the myths that we first believed in about Silicon Valley are now laughable looking back, they were also really instructional as to how we wanted to build our company and what pitfalls we wanted to avoid.

Even though nearly half of tech startups are founded by immigrant entrepreneurs, we have a cultural learning curve in order to have the opportunity to be “the next unicorn.” And maybe that’s the point, we’re experiencing a moment in time during which myths and unicorns no longer serve us, and what we need instead is the background, experience, and vision to create a company that is worth the hype.

 


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Alumni Ventures Group is the most active venture fund you’ve never heard of

22:13 | 19 October

Alumni Ventures Group’s (AVG) limited partners aren’t endowment or pension funds. Its typical LP is a heart surgeon in Des Moines, Iowa.

The firm has both an unorthodox model of fundraising and dealmaking. Across 25 micro funds, AVG is raising and investing upwards of $200 million per year for and in tech startups.

Tucked away in Boston, far from the limelight of Silicon Valley, few seem to be paying attention to AVG. There are a few reasons why, and those seem to be working in the firm’s advantage.

Today, AVG is announcing a close of roughly $30 million for three additional funds: Green D Ventures, Chestnut Street Ventures and Purple Arch Ventures, which represent capital committed by Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern alums, respectively.

“People don’t really know what to make of us”

AVG walks and talks like a venture fund, but a peek under the hood reveals its unconventional fundraising mechanisms.

Rather than collecting $5 million minimum investments from institutional LPs, AVG takes $50,000 directly from individual alums of prestigious universities. The firm pools the capital and creates university-specific venture funds for graduates of Duke, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and several other colleges. 

“People don’t really know what to make of us because we’re so different,” said Michael Collins, AVG’s founder and chief executive officer.

Collins started AVG to make venture capital more accessible to individual people. He’s been a VC since 1986, formerly of TA Associates, and had grown tired of the hubris that runs rampant in the industry. In 2014, he started a $1.5 million fund for alums of his alma mater, Dartmouth. Since then, AVG has grown into 25 funds each of which fundraise annually and are seeing substantial growth over their previous raises.

“What we observed is VC is a really good asset class but it’s really designed for institutional investors,” Collins (pictured below) said. “It’s really hard for individual people to put together a smart, simple portfolio unless they do it themselves. That’s why we created AVG.”

AVG and its team of 40 investment professionals make 150 to 200 investments per year of roughly $1 million each in U.S. startups across industries. In the second quarter of 2018, PitchBook listed the firm as the second most active global investor, ranked below only Plug and Play Tech Center and above the likes of Kleiner Perkins, NEA and Accel. 

Unlike the Kleiners, NEAs and Accels of the world, AVG never leads investments. Collins says they just “tuck themselves into” a deal with a great lead investor. They don’t take board seats; Collins says he doesn’t see any value in more than one VC on a company board. And they don’t try to negotiate deal terms.

Though unusual, all of this works to their advantage. Founders appreciate the easy capital and access to AVG’s network, and other VC firms don’t view AVG as a threat, making it easier for the firm to get in on great deals.

“We are low friction, we are small and we have a hell of a Rolodex,” Collins said.

VC doesn’t have to be a star business

Despite a deal flow that’s unmatched by many VC firms, AVG manages to fly under the radar and the firm is totally ok with that.

“A lot of VC is a bit of a star business where people try to build their own individual brand,” Collins said. “They get out there; they like publicity; they blog; they speak at conferences; they want to be known as the person to bring great deals to. We don’t lead. We work in the background. We just don’t feel the need to put the energy into PR.”

“Most VC returns are really achieved through investing in great companies as opposed to changing the trajectory of a company because you’re on the board,” he added. “If you’re a seed investor in Airbnb or Google, you were really great to be an early investor in that company, not because you sat on the board and you’re brilliance created Google’s success.”

AVG has completed 115 investments in the last 12 months. It’s investing out of 10-year funds, so at just four years in, it has some more waiting to do before it’ll see the full outcomes of its investments. Still, Collins says 65 of their portfolio companies have had liquidity events so far, including Jump, which sold to Uber in April, and Whistle, acquired by Mars Petcare a few years back.

“I hope that we can be a catalyst to bring more people into this asset class,” he concluded.

“I am a big believer that it’s really important that America continues to lead in entrepreneurship and I think the more people that own this asset class the better.”

 


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