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Singapore-based Geniebook’s personalized learning platform raises $16.6M Series A

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-19 02:30

Founded in 2017, Geniebook is a Singapore-based learning platform that uses a combination of machine learning and human teacheres to personalize each student’s education. The company announced today it has raised $16.6 million in Series A funding led by East Ventures and Lightspeed Venture Partners, with participation by angel investors including John Danner, founder of Dunce Capital; Gaurav Munjal and Roman Saini, founders of Indian edtech unicorn Unacademy; Snapdeal founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal; and senior executives from Grab, Shopee and Gojek.

Geniebook’s founders say it is profitable, and its revenue has grown over 2,000% since the beginning of 2019. It now has a user base of 150,000 students, and 350 employees across offices in Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Most of Geniebook’s students are based in Singapore and Vietnam, and it plans to use part of its funding to continue growing in those markets before focusing on other Southeast Asian countries. The startup’s Series A brings its total raised to about $18 million. Geniebook’s last round of funding was a $1.1 million pre-Series A round in 2019 from Apricot Capital.

Geniebook’s offers English, mathematics and science courses based on Singapore’s national curriculum for primary and secondary school students. The platform’s three core features are GenieSmart, or practice sheets customized for students with AI-based tech; live online classes that can host up to 900 students at a time; and GenieAsk, where a teacher and teaching assistant are assigned to groups of 50 students for class discussions and help.

Geniebook co-founders Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong

Geniebook co-founders Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong

The startup was founded by Neo Zhizhong and Alicia Cheong, who met while they were in university. Cheong tutored math, Neo tutored science and the two often referred students to one another. Eventually, they decided to set up a brick-and-mortar tutoring center, which quickly became profitable. While figuring out how to scale the center, the two started incorporating tech elements into classes, before deciding to make the business fully online in 2017. “We realized technology can change the way teachers teach and students learn,” Neo said.

Though Geniebook became an online platform well before the start of the pandemic, Neo said COVID-19 created a lot more awareness among parents and students. “Southeast Asia is a $60 billion market for private education and the market suddenly became a $60 billion market for online education.” As students got used to live-streaming classes, they started to expect more personalized and interactive content, he added.

Instead of generic worksheets, each student’s homework is customized by GenieSmart, which uses a neural network to pick questions based on their strengths and weaknesses, so they don’t have to answer questions about concepts they are already comfortable with. The communities led by teacher/teaching assistant pairs are another way to keep students motivated. Neo said Geniebooks’ personalization features is one of the ways it differentiates from other learning platforms like Koobits and Superstar Teacher.

“One of the questions any educator needs to answer is ‘how do we create an environment that engages a community of learners by themselves,’ so educators don’t have to keep nagging learners, because then kids will just be like ‘please don’t talk to me anymore,’” said Neo.

In Geniebook’s communities, students are encouraged to work together, with teachers and teaching assistants providing learning content, guidance and corrections. Students are also rewarded with points for completing worksheets or answering questions correctly that can be redeemed for things like Roblox’s virtual currency and Apple App Store credits (though some save them up to get holiday presents for their parents).

Each teacher works with several communities of students. To help them as the platform scales up, Geniebook will implement an AI chat function to answer basic and frequently-asked questions.

Geniebook’s new funding will be used to hire for leadership roles, build its product development team and market expansion.

In a statement about the funding, Lightspeed partner Dev Share said, “The Southeast Asia region has several countries with exam-driven cultures where Geniebook’s worksheets and cohort-based live learning approach delivers a premium experience with measurable improvement in student outcomes.”


Primer raises $50M at a $425M valuation for a framework designed to help merchants build more powerful payment flows

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-19 02:00

Primer — a UK startup that has built a drag-and-drop framework to help merchants easily build payment stacks to sell online — has seen rapid take-up of its services in the 20 months since it launched. Now the company is announcing a Series B of $50 million at a $425 million valuation to double down on the opportunity to do more.

ICONIQ Growth — the growth-stage arm of the San Francisco wealth management and investment firm connected to Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and other high net-worth tech executives — led the round with existing investors Accel, Balderton Capital, Seedcamp, Speedinvest, and RTP Global among those also participating.

Primer today works across more than 20 countries and has some 45 integrations that its merchant users can add to their payment flows, ranging from payments providers like Stripe, Apple Pay, Adyen and Braintree, through to fraud screening from Riskified, sales tax calculations from TaxJar, and more. When a user creates a payment workflow, Primer creates a separate line of code that developers can use to integrate what’s been built on Primer.

The plan will be both to add in more integrations, to expand the kinds of relationships Primer builds with the wider payments ecosystem, and to build new services for merchants, too.

“We are building out a whole suite in the next year to aid merchants with operations, and the observability of the payment stack,” said Paul Anthony, Prime’s co-founder and CEO.

There is a curious paradox in the world of e-commerce.

On one side, e-commerce companies spend a lot of time (and money) in trying to build experiences that are as simple as possible, to keep shoppers sticking around, interested and buying things.

On the other, payments — which are at the heart of all e-commerce experiences — are notoriously fragmented.

“Preferred payment method” changes depending on which country you go to; and so too do the different companies that are part of the payments process, and the services that can be (and should be) rolled in with payments, such as identity verification.

It’s one reason why so many embedded payments companies have emerged over the years: they have done all the hard work knitting several transactions and stakeholders in the payments process together, and now all a merchant needs to do is add a couple of lines of code to their sites for payments to appear and work.

Payments companies, keen to grow their business and their margins, are consolidating a number of commerce technology providers — for example, Stripe has been on something of an acquisition spree this year bringing in tools to calculate sales tax, to help manage identity verification, and more — but Primer believes that this is not the full story.

Anthony and his co-founder Gabriel Le Roux saw some of the pain points that bigger merchants faced first-hand when they worked together at Braintree. Even with the might of PayPal at their disposal, those merchants still faced a lot of complexity in building and maintaining their payments stacks.

Primer’s mostly mid-market customers — they include micro-mobility startup Voi, Freddie’s Flowers and Parkopedia — helping with payments strategy and use to engage with customerson average use between 4 and 5 services in their payments stack, Le Roux said, and that number is slowly growing.

The importance of a tool like Primer is not just to make it much easier to build the payments check-out flow (eg, creating a tree where you can map out all of the options of what happens when a person tries to make a purchase and it’s rejected or approved by, say, a card company) but simply to give those merchants an easier way of having a choice of providers, testing out different payments services and more.

“Over the past two decades, the pace of new payment solutions entering the market has been accelerating dramatically to support global consumer demand for trends like mobile payments, digital wallets, 1-click checkout, buy now pay later, and so on,” said Roy Luo, a partner at ICONIQ Growth, in a statement. “However, no one payment solution is close to accommodating all the changes and innovations that merchants need to keep up. So, for merchants’ payment and engineering teams, this dynamic forces immense technical complexity in tying together multiple payment methods, gateways, fraud detection, and more.”


Maritime recruitment platform Seafair gets $5.7M led by General Catalyst

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-19 01:00

The people who work on shipping vessels are vital to world trade, but they still experience a lot of arcane hiring processes. Many lack transparency about important things like pay or even the working conditions of they ships they will spend months on. Maritime recruitment platform Seafair was created to solve these problems. It vets seafarers and shipping operators and uses matching algorithms to fit crew members with the right vessels.

The company announced today it has raised $5.7 million led by General Catalyst, with participation from FirstMinute Capital, Signal Ventures, TA Ventures, SV Angel, SpeedInvest and returning investor FJ Labs. This brings Seafair’s total funding to about $7 million.

Seafair was launched late last year by Agapitos Diakogiannis, who was born and raised in Greece, and its current clients include one of the world’s top 100 shipping companies.

“Greece is one of the global superpowers in shipping, so when I was working in consulting, I became close to the industry and really fell in love with it.”

After consulting, Diakogiannis spent time in venture capital, were he saw how labor marketplaces are disrupting industries like construction, manufacturing, oil and gas.

Diakogiannis realized he had the network to address a large market opportunity, but there was another reason for starting Seafair. After talking to seafarers, he realized how opaque the hiring process is. Many people have trouble finding jobs even though their labor is in high demand and they don’t know a lot about working conditions or payment before accepting a placement.

Seafair matches workers with shipping companies based on their background, skills and performance, and uses matching algorithms to make the process of filling vacancies more efficient. It also provides vessel operators with human resources software that helps them consolidate data that is otherwise siloed in different ERP platforms and spreadsheets. Seafair is currently focused on senior officer roles, like chief engineers and ship masters, since those positions are the ones that have the most certification and training to track.

Shipping companies are based around the world, but about 50% of seafarers come from Eastern Europe and the Philippines, so they typically rely on agencies to staff vessels. Since agencies rely on hiring commissions to make money, however, they might not always provide the best fits for openings, Diakogiannis said.

Seafair provides a digitized and more transparent version of traditional agencies (and is licensed to operate as an agency in Ukraine and the Philippines, with more countries planned).

First, seafarers upload their CVs online, then Seafair runs a series of background checks and online assessments. If it decides someone is a good fit for a vessel, the platform schedules interviews. If they are hired, Seafair starts the deployment process, including digital contracts.

The platform also verifies employers and the vessels under their management before they can start using Seafair. The startup’s HR software includes tools to manage payments, insurance, schedules and rest hours. Some of its features customized to the maritime industry include alerts for when a seafarer’s certifications are going to expire, and salary recommendations to help increase retention rates.

Seafair’s new funding will be used to build more technology for seafarer vetting and expand in markets including Germany, Nordic countries and the United States.

In a statement, General Catalyst managing director Niko Bonatsos said, “The maritime industry is one of the last untapped frontiers. One needs deep industry insights, an ambitious vision and a determined team to succeed in a market like this—and we saw all the above in Seafair.”


For second time, Lime announces adjusted EBITDA-profitable quarter

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 23:47

Shared micromobility operator Lime is on track for third quarter adjusted EBITDA profitability, marking this as the second profitable quarter in the company’s history, according to CEO Wayne Ting. During the Wall Street Journal Tech Live event, Ting said COVID has turned from a “headwind into a tailwind,” heralding more prosperous times in the year to come.

Sound familiar?

Around this time last year, at the WSJ Future of Everything event, Ting also boasted of the company’s movement beyond the financial hardships of the pandemic and toward Q3 profitability. Lime said it was operating both cash flow positive and free cash flow positive, with expectations to be full-year profitable in 2021. Unfortunately, COVID got in the way again.

“The Delta variant led to additional lockdowns and delays of cities opening up around the world, which impacted projected top-line revenue,” Russell Murphy, senior director of corporate communications at Lime, told TechCrunch. “Even without tourism and commuting returning to pre-COVID levels, we’re glad that demand has returned and we’re anticipating a continued surge in ridership in 2022.”

Ting said bottom-line growth is what made a difference this year. Q3’s top line was about the same as the same quarter in 2019, give or take 1% to 2%, and that was not a profitable quarter. This means that although Lime was not able to generate more sales and revenue, it was able to spend its money and manage its operating costs far more efficiently.

Adjusted EBITDA is a non-GAAP accounting measure that many startups use to give a more comparable picture of their financial performance. Factors like stock-based compensation for employees are often removed from adjusted EBITDA, which can make it all but impossible to truly understand a company’s cash flow position without an official SEC filing. Ting did not mention cash-flow positivity during the event.

Over the past year, Lime has done things like deploy its Gen4 scooters with swappable batteries, which can certainly help streamline charging processes. Better-quality scooters and bikes that last longer also remove some of the significant costs of vehicle depreciation while bolstering unit economics. The company said it was also able to drive operational efficiencies with learnings from running a large, global micromobility fleet, but didn’t provide specifics.

“The business is coming back even though some of our biggest use cases are still not back, so commute is not back, tourism is not back,” said Ting. “What we’ve actually seen is we dramatically grew what we call ‘intercity travel.’ People are using us versus alternatives because we are open-air, single passenger, because people want a greener way to move around. And when I look forward to 2022, commute is going to come back to some extent, tourism is going to come back. We just announced opening travel from Europe, and all those are going to be tailwinds going into next year.”

Lime is also relying on shifting consumer sentiments to grow revenues, particularly around younger generations and climate change.

“The number one source for carbon pollution in the United States is transportation,” said Ting. “If we want to fundamentally solve carbon from transportation we have to look at lighter weight alternatives like scooters and bikes, and we have to invest in public transportation. When you talk to young people, this is deeply felt by them and they’re changing their behavior to meet this moment.”

This story is ongoing. Please check back in for updates. 


Facebook tests a new option for cross-posting your Facebook feed posts to Instagram

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 22:47

Facebook already allows users to cross-post their Instagram Stories and Reels to Facebook. Now it’s testing a new feature that would see posts flowing in the other direction, too. The company recently rolled out an option that allows users to cross-post their Facebook updates that include photos or videos over to their Instagram. For people who are active on both platforms, the feature could save you from having to upload the same media twice in two different apps. It also gives Facebook an easy way to seed Instagram with more content at a time when the company is invested in ensuring Instagram remains a popular social media platform with younger users in the face of increased competition from apps like Snapchat and TikTok.

Facebook said the feature, which has yet to be formally announced, first began to roll out earlier this month. However, the company noted the option is currently a global test that’s only available to a small group of people who already have their Facebook profiles linked to a personal, creator or business account on Instagram.

If available, you’ll see the feature in Facebook’s compose box where you create posts. The new toggle appears besides those for editing the audience for your post and creating a new album.

Image Credits: Screenshot from the Facebook app on iOS

When tapped, you’ll be taken to a new screen where you can choose to share the individual Facebook post to your connected Instagram account, as well. The screen informs you this option will only apply to the post in question — it won’t become the default setting going forward.

If you do want to change your defaults, though, you can visit the linked “Accounts Center,” where you can now toggle on an option to automatically share all your Facebook Posts to Instagram, in addition to automatically sharing your Facebook Stories to Instagram Stories. (The latter was previously available.)

Image Credits: Screenshot from the Facebook app on iOS

The company told us users will be able to cross-post to Instagram single photos, single videos or multiphoto albums up to 10 photos — the max that’s supported through Instagram’s carousels. Other formats, like GIFs, polls, photos albums with more than 10 photos, Feed reshares, text-only posts and any media that’s too tall for Instagram’s Feed are not eligible for cross-posting at present.

Facebook has been working to make its suite of apps more interoperate in recent months — and not just by making cross-posting an option for those who use multiple apps.

The company last year introduced cross-app communication between Messenger and Instagram, allowing Instagram users to chat with friends who use Facebook and (as of last month) vice versa. It’s also been working on making Messenger more of a “connective tissue” for Facebook’s growing number of real-time experiences and has been testing a way that Facebook users could make voice and video calls right on Facebook without having to switch to the Messenger app. And last month, it revamped its ad products to include more tools that would allow people to message businesses on any of Facebook’s chat platforms, instead of just the one where they’re seeing the ad. That means users could click an Instagram ad to chat with a business on WhatsApp, for example.

If this all makes it a bit more confusing to determine what content lives where and who’s using which app, that could be by design. The tighter integrations may make it more difficult to fully exit Facebook, as content and communications flow between the Facebook suite of apps. In addition, the complexity could be hard to unravel in the case that regulators decide to break up Facebook into separate businesses, if it were to be declared a monopoly at some point in the future.

Facebook did not say how long the global test would run or when it would roll out more broadly.


Ford invests $316M to build electric power units at UK transmission facility

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 22:39

Ford Motor Company is investing $316 million (£230 million) to transform its Halewood, U.K. vehicle transmission facility into an electric power unit plant, making it Ford’s first EV component in-house assembly site in Europe.

The investment is subject to and includes about $42 million (£30 million) from the U.K. government through its Automotive Transformation Fund, according to The Times. Some 500 local automotive jobs will be saved as a result of the investment, the paper said.

Power units produced in the plant will supply all-electric passenger and commercial vehicles sold in Europe, helping the company inch toward its electrification goals. Earlier this year, Ford announced its European strategy to only sell electric vehicles on the continent by 2030 and to only produce electric commercial vehicles in Europe by 2024. The company spent $1 billion to revamp an assembly factory in Cologne, Germany and predicts that electric models will account for two-thirds of its European sales.

The power unit is what replaces the engine and transmission in an ICE vehicle; it manages the flow of electricity delivered by the battery and controls the speed of the electric motor and the torque it produces. Ford estimates power unit production in Halewood will begin in mid-2024, with planned capacity at around 250,000 units per year. The automaker did not respond to requests about whether the power units will be sent to the Cologne facility or elsewhere for assembly.  Historically, the Halewood factory exports 100% of its production, helping to make Ford one of the U.K.’s largest exporters of engines and transmissions from its facilities to “more than 15 countries on six continents, with overseas sales generating around £2.5 billion ($3.5 billion) annually,” according to the company.

“In this highly competitive, global race to secure electric vehicle manufacturing, our priority is to ensure the U.K. reaps the benefits,” Kwasi Kwarteng, the U.K. government’s business secretary and member of parliament, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement, backed by government funding, is a huge vote of confidence in Britain’s economic future and our plans to ramp up electric vehicle production. It will future-proof Halewood’s proud industrial heritage and secure high-skilled, well-paid jobs across the North West for years to come.”

Europe isn’t the only place Ford is expanding its electric capabilities. The automaker has $30 billion to play with by 2025, and the fruits of its labor in China have finally dropped. On Monday, the first Mustang Mach-E manufactured in China rolled off the assembly line. Customers in China will have access to the locally produced Mach-E by the end of the year through Ford’s direct sales network of EV city stores, according to the company. Ford says it’s on track to open 25 stores in major metro areas this year and expand to more than 100 within the next five years.

This story is developing. Check back in for updates.


Max Q: Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding want to map space junk

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 22:15

Hello and welcome back to Max Q. It was a busy week for the space industry! Keep reading for news from Astra, Blue Origin, Varda Space and more.

Tips, opinions, criticism, thoughts? Email me at aria.techcrunch@gmail.com or find me on Twitter at @breadfrom.

Don’t forget to sign up to get the free newsletter version of Max Q delivered to your inbox.

Astra completes its investigation into August’s sideways launch

It appears that small rocket startup Astra has identified the root cause of the anomaly that led to its launch failure at the end of August. Evidently, it was due to a propellant leakage, which caused one of the engines to shut down one second after launch, Astra’s chief engineer Benjamin Lyon said in a blog post. The subsequent asymmetrical engine firing that came after led the rocket to hover and drift in the air before managing a brief vertical ascension.

Even as it recounted the debacle, the company is ready to try again, opening the launch window for its next attempt on October 27. The rocket, dubbed “LV0007,” will carry a test payload for the U.S. Space Force.

Steve Wozniak and Alex Fielding want to create “the Google Maps of space”

Rumors were swirling in September after Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak tweeted a link to a one-minute promo video on YouTube for a new company called Privateer. Sleuths started to wonder if the new company might have to do with orbital debris or space junk — cleaning it up, perhaps?

Not quite. I got the lowdown on the new startup from co-founder Alex Fielding, who told me that Privateer’s aim is to create concrete and actionable knowledge regarding the location of space debris. As it turns out, what info we do have isn’t that great. To solve this problem, Privateer aims to send up its first demo spacecraft, dubbed Pono 1, next February; subsequent launches will follow.

“I’m an optimist and I still am very, very, very afraid that we’re too late, that we’re probably within 24 months of the first on-orbit human space casualty,” Fielding said. “And the reason for that is just the proliferation in low Earth orbit.”

A new partnership between defense and venture capital

This week, I chatted with the co-founders of Embedded Ventures, an eleven-month-old venture capital firm that’s recently entered into a novel agreement with the U.S. Space Force. This news interested me because the two entities are using a partnership agreement called a CRADA — a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement — that’s never before been used with a VC fund.

More space news from TechCrunch

  • Blue Origin successfully completed its second crewed launch, sending four people — including actor William Shatner — to space and back on Wednesday. Ninety-year-old Shatner is now the oldest person to go to space. It’s a bit of good news for Blue, which is trying to build out its space tourism business amidst a slew of bad press (see below).
  • Rocket Lab is acquiring a Colorado-based space software company called Advanced Solutions, Inc. (ASI) for $40 million. ASI specializes in space software, mission simulation and test systems, as well as Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GNC) systems.
  • Space Perspective has caught the interest of investors in its approach to space tourism. The company is developing a stratospheric balloon system to take passengers to the upper-atmosphere by 2024, and just closed a $40 million Series A round.
  • Varda Space Industries, the fast-moving startup that wants to build manufacturing facilities in space, has selected SpaceX as its launch provider for its first demo flight in 2023. Varda’s spacecraft will be going to orbit on a Falcon 9 rideshare mission, an increasingly popular option for smaller companies looking to send lighter payloads to space.

News from around the web

  • Blue Origin has a serious “bro culture” problem, according to numerous employees and industry officials interviewed by The Washington Post. This latest damning report largely supports the essay penned by 21 current and former Blue employees last month.
  • mu Space, a Thai aerospace manufacturer, has opened a third factory in Thailand, with a capacity of producing up to 100 satellites per year.
  • Planet Labs, which aims to go public via a merger with a blank-check firm, unveiled a new line of satellites, called “Pelican.” Launches of the new satellites will begin next year.
  • Skyrora, a rocket startup based in the United Kingdom, has signed a multi-launch deal with a Scottish spaceport as it aims to launch its first vehicle in 2022. The company eventually wants to conduct 16 launches a year by 2030.
  • Space Capital has released its quarterly report on investing in the sector. The firm found that investors have poured $8.7 billion into the industry in the third quarter alone, positioning 2021 to beat last year’s record.
  • Spaced Ventures, a crowdfunding platform to let individuals invest in space startups, raised a $1.2 million seed round, led by WorldQuant Ventures. The company says it has already received more than 100 applications from startups looking to raise on its platform.

Join us at TC Sessions: Space in December

Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening December 14 and 15, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.

Read more stories on TechCrunch.com


Daily Crunch: New M1 chips, MacBook Pros and more debut at Apple’s ‘Unleashed’ event

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 22:10

To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PDT, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for October 18, 2021. Yes, it was an Apple event day, so we have a pile of coverage for you to enjoy down below. But we also have a mess of startup stories and some IPO notes to boot. Let’s go! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Here’s everything Apple announced today: Apple’s event included new AirPods, new MacBook Pros, new chips — the lot. If you are in the market for a new Apple laptop and don’t want something as light as possible, it was a pretty good day. Unless you hate notches. Meanwhile, Wall Street was bored by the whole affair.
  • Amazon in hot water over congressional testimony: After testifying that Amazon didn’t use third-party marketplace data to guide its own first-party product decisions, the company is in the soup after the press disclosed that it did just that. Amazon reiterated its policy against such actions, despite former employees claiming that breaking the rule was standard practice. Congress is peeved. And Amazon is under fire for allegedly preferring its own products, despite saying that it doesn’t. As an aside, if Amazon is unable to enforce its own policies due to its size, it’s not really doing itself or any of its fellow technology giants much of a favor as they fend off regulatory scrutiny.
  • Inside Expensify’s IPO filing: Another week, another S-1 filing to enjoy. This time it’s Expensify’s turn to go public. The Portland, Oregon-based company is bouncing back from COVID impacts to its business, with growing revenues and historical profitability. It’s a neat IPO, though we’re not entirely sure yet where it will price.

Startups/VC

Kicking off today’s startup digest, a note for startups building in the MENA region: We want to chat.

  • What you should know about going public: Are you a startup founder with hopes of eventually taking your company public? Good news: We recently sat down with a group of experts on the matter, including investor and operator perspectives. So if you want to get a leg up on your own future, this is for you.
  • TripleBlind raises $24M for corporate data encryption: Data privacy is an increasingly key concept for global companies loath to run afoul of regulators — or consumers. TripleBlind is building a service that has “devised a way to encrypt data so that it can be shared without ever being decrypted or even leaving the data owner’s firewall and keeping the whole process compliant with data protection regulations,” which we quite like the sound of. Notably, the company is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Deel shows that remote hiring is hot: Talk to an early-stage startup today, and you’ll be regaled with tales of how they are eight people in four time zones across five countries. But supporting remote employees in different locales is not easy. Taxes alone can get messy. Deel manages that headache for other companies, and it just raised $425 million at a $5.5 billion valuation. That’s one hell of a load of cash wagered on remote hiring not just sticking around, but growing.
  • Allplants wants to make all-plant TV dinners: If it comes in a box and goes in the microwave, it’s probably not that good for you. That’s been a reasonable sentiment for ages. Allplants wants to shake that up with vegan meals that come in a box. Draper Esprit led its Series B, putting £38 million into the company. Frankly, that’s a metric tonne of sterling. If I can find an Allplants meal to buy and try, I will report back.
  • African startups take more accelerator spots: As the African startup market accelerates — data here — we’re seeing more startups from the continent take part in the global accelerator market.
  • And because I cannot help but mention it, the company that sailed a drone sailboat into a hurricane the other week just raised $100 million.

Leveraging customer feedback and data to iterate on your product

Very few startups go to market with the product they first envisioned.

Iteration is a key process for early-stage companies, but it’s also an acquired skill. To learn more about how operators can lean on data to accelerate the product development process and segment users into useful cohorts, Anna Heim spoke to:

  • Jean-Denis Grèze, CTO, Plaid
  • Stephanie Mencarelli, VP, Product Design at InVision
  • Pete Thompson, SVP & Chief Product Officer, eBay

 (TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Amazon to expand Zoox trial to Seattle: Recall that Amazon owns Zoox. The news today that Zoox is expanding autonomous driving trials to the Seattle area now makes more sense. Providence next, please.
  • Toyota earmarks $3.4B for battery production: How big is the battery game going to get? Much, much bigger. Aside from what that means for certain mining operations, news is out today that Toyota plans to pour billions into “battery development and production in the United States through the end of the decade.” The days of internal combustion are numbered.

TechCrunch Experts

dc experts

Image Credits: SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

If you’re curious about how these surveys are shaping our coverage, check out this article on TechCrunch+ from Jonas van de Poel, “Smart growth tactics can put account-based marketing within reach for startups and SMBs.”

Community

Join Walter Thompson on Twitter Spaces, tomorrow, October 19, at 3 p.m. PDT/6 p.m. EDT as he hosts a Q&A about what TechCrunch looks for in guest contributions.

Next Week! TC Sessions: SaaS Kicks Off

Join TechCrunch on October 27 for TC Sessions: SaaS, where we will delve into all things software as a service. From talks with big names like SAP and Databricks to pitch sessions with up-and-coming SaaS startups, it’s going to be a conference to remember. Tickets start at just $35 — book yours today.


Aiven snags $60M investment on $2B valuation, up from $800M in March

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 22:06

Aiven, a Finnish startup that helps companies combine various open source technologies with public cloud infrastructure resources, announced a $60 million investment on a $2 billion valuation today. The news follows a $100 million investment in March at an $800 million valuation, a hefty increase in such a short time.

World Innovation Labs and IVP co-led the round with participation from Atomico — all existing investors. Today’s round, which is considered an extension of that $100 million C round announced in March, brings the total amount raised to $210 million, according to Crunchbase data.

Company CEO and co-founder Oskari Saarenmaa says the company helps take the complexity out of managing open source projects in the cloud. “We started working on Aiven back in 2015 and we wanted to create a cloud data platform that we would have liked to have used ourselves [when we were working as engineers prior to creating the company]. We created this cloud operations platform that could turn the best open source data technologies into managed services on any public cloud.”

The company works with a portfolio of nine open source data technologies, including Kafka, Cassandra, OpenSearch and Grafana. Saarenmaa points out that they don’t simply commercialize these technologies, they also contribute to the communities building these tools as well. In fact, they recently formed a team of 10 engineers devoted specifically to writing code for the open source projects that are part of their product portfolio.

If you’re thinking that many of these tools already have startups built on top of these open source technologies, you’re right. He acknowledged that they do overlap sometimes with companies that have their own cloud services built around open source tooling such as Confluent does with Apache Kafka, but they are trying to package it in a way that simplifies it for the customers even more by providing the public cloud infrastructure, as well as the open source data technology required for any data processing project.

Part of the reason the company is attracting this kind of investment is that it is growing quickly and currently boasts 700 customers across 50 countries around the world. They are also working with some ISVs to increase the company’s market reach further.

They have grown from a team of 40 people pre-pandemic, adding more than 200 employees since March 2020, with plans to continue building the team. As they do, Saarenmaa says they are making diversity a priority. “It is very important for us to be able to bring in leaders who candidates can really connect and identify with. I don’t think there’s any other option than to make diversity one of the top priorities,” he said. That said, he admits that the staff still tilts heavily male, even as he is trying to change that.

He says that in spite of the substantial valuation, the company sees great value in remaining private for the time being. “It makes a lot of sense for us to continue being an independent company and growing on this path that we’ve chosen, but that doesn’t mean we don’t see becoming a public company at some point. It is likely that is the way we are thinking, but we’re not exactly working on filing our S-1,” he joked.


Zopa raises $300M at a $1B valuation to expand its P2P lending and savings neobank in the UK

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 21:30

Another big infusion of cash from a major investor is making its way to a fintech out of the U.K. on the heels of strong growth. Today Zopa — a neobank with some 500,000 users in the U.K. where it provides peer-to-peer lending, savings accounts, credit cards and other services — has raised $300 million, at a valuation that we’ve confirmed to be $1 billion (£750 million) post-money.

Zopa describes this as a “pre-IPO” round, and from what we understand, that public offering — if things continue on the same trajectory as now — will come in Q4 of 2022. The company is currently on a run rate of £85 million ($116 million), and expects that to double to £170 million ($233 million) by 2022. It’s also on track to reach profitability by the end of this year.

Unlike other neobanks, Zopa’s banking services focus not on current (checking) accounts but a savings account, which complements its loan and credit products. “This means we are driving less customers in the ecosystem,” CEO Jaidev Janardana said in an interview today, but he added that this is also a better business model in terms of margins and returns. “They really use us and are willing to pay for the services.”

Softbank Vision Fund 2 led the round with participation also from Chimera Capital, with existing investors IAG Silverstripe, Davidson Kempner Capital Management LP, NorthZone and Augmentum Fintech all also participating. Zopa’s timed the news to coincide with a Global Investment Summit (GIS) 2021 led by the U.K. government this week, although it looks like the company has been working on this round since this summer, first as a $100 million round; in the interim the size of the fundraise has nearly tripled.

That investor enthusiasm is part of a bigger trend at the moment. Neobanks in Europe have been leading the charge in the race for huge fintech funding rounds this year, buoyed by strong customer growth and a collective consumer appetite for a new take on banking that is easier to use (namely via mobile apps) and features services that are more attuned to how younger generations of adult consumers manage and spend their money.

Just today, Berlin’s N26 raised $900 million on a $9 billion valuation. Earlier this summer, London’s Revolut raised $800 million on a $33 billion valuation. Starling in March raised $376 million on a $1.9 billion valuation. And even startups catering to helping older incumbent banks get modernized and up to speed are seeing some of the windfall: 10x in June raised $187 million to build new services for older banks.

Zopa is, relatively speaking, not a new kid on the block, less neo than some of the other neobanks making waves at the moment.

It got its start in 2005 and claims to be the first company to develop the concept of P2P lending: When people apply to borrow money, the funds are sourced not from Zopa’s deposits as they might be in a traditional bank, but from a network of individual retail investors and institutional investors, who are banking on Zopa using better algorithms and other technology to ensure that they’re lending to people who are more likely to pay back what they borrow.

That was the bulk of the business until the company started, in 2018, to set its sights expanding to new product horizons with the launch of a bank. That finally happened last year.

“I see this latest investment as a validation of the successful launch of our banking service,” Janardana said. He added that while Zopa’s lending service is still the bigger part of the business, the banking is seeing the most growth. (That lending business has processed some £6 billion in loans to date.)

The company plans to use the funding to continue expanding the products that it offers to its customers, which will expand on the theme of providing tools to consumers to help them build and manage their savings better. “We have a lot of ambitions for savings,” Janardana said. “We think it’s an important part of the ecosystem for borrowers to have a habit of saving, so creating products that promote that” is important. It will also be looking at ways of helping consumers pay off credit cards, rather than enabling the kind of balance transfers between cards that are the norm today.

He said that while there will be more products aimed at “solopreneurs” the business market is not one that Zopa plans to take on in the near future. But it will likely look at ways of partnering with others in the area of neobanks and fintechs where its technology in lending, credit and savings might be complementary.

The fact that most of the products that Zopa offers today were built from the ground up by the company — not sourced by way of APIs as some neobanks have done — means that there is a stronger degree of flexibility in what Zopa can do next, either with partners or on its own, and that is something that seems to have stood out for investors, too.

“We believe Zopa’s fast-growing market penetration reflects high customer demand for adaptable financial services within a usable platform that can be customized to their specific needs,” said Sourav Sen, investor for SoftBank Investor Advisers, in a statement. “Zopa is fast emerging as a leading player in the U.K.’s nascent neobanking sector and we are proud to partner with Jaidev and the team on this journey.”


Deep tech startups in need of funding should consider federal grants

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 21:14

Our team of researchers started CoCoPIE to solve the chip shortage crisis. We’re a group of Ph.D.s who aim to power next-generation technology without the need for expensive hardware that takes billions of dollars to develop and years to deploy. We needed a way to bring our idea into action.

For deep tech startups, the capital game can be a tricky one to play. The VC world is attracted to the low-investment/high-returns model deep tech tends to offer, but it can also be impatient with the time it takes to get there. According to PitchBook, the VC world is also trending toward the megadeal ($100 million+), which doesn’t generally apply to early-stage startups with a handful of employees.

While we did raise funds from one of the VC world’s glitterati — Sequoia Capital — when we were accepted into the Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program, we knew our solution was much more valuable than a chip that would make its way to the reject line.

Here’s why we applied for a federal grant and why we think you should add “America’s Seed Fund” to your deep tech fundraising mix.

Build credibility

There are several SBIR/STTR programs. Ours is powered by the National Science Foundation. These grants are highly competitive and, if chosen, can establish and strengthen your company’s technical image on the market.

Being selected out of thousands of U.S. applicants signals that your innovation has strong technical and commercial merit and the potential for broad U.S. economic impact. It’s a stamp that encourages other potential investors to raise their hands. Even if you aren’t selected, the feedback you receive from the review committee is invaluable.

Keep equity and decision-making authority

Receiving funding often means you have to give something back. That can be interest payments if you’ve taken a loan or equity if you’ve received VC funds. The SBIR/STTR programs allow you to retain full ownership of your company and IP. The administrators also aren’t interested in driving strategy — they believe in your vision and want to help you bring it to fruition. Their goal is to “invest in a better future for our shareholders: the American public.”

CoCoPIE’s vision is to enable real-time AI for off-the-shelf mobile devices. If adopted by the semiconductor, digital media and IoT industries, it can significantly improve the way we consume, learn and interact with our devices.

But, like any deep tech company, the question becomes how to get it widely adopted. We are using the SBIR/STTR funds to convert our technology into a minimum viable product, an essential step for us to reach a broader customer base. Thus far, our technology has attracted multiple key pilot customers, including Tencent, a global gaming giant that utilizes our super-resolution technology to enhance its customers’ gaming experience.

Potential for additional funding

The SBIR/STTR program is administered in three gated phases that progress your product toward commercialization. Each startup can receive up to $2 million in funding. What you don’t get in funding in Phase III you make up for in actual business, typically through government procurement contracts.


Alaska Airlines launches new venture arm, with first investment in UP.Partners’ $230M fund

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 20:30

Alaska Airlines has become the latest major airline to enter corporate investing with the launch of a new venture capital arm, dubbed Alaska Star Ventures, as the aviation industry looks to emerging technologies to help decarbonize air travel.

Alaska Star Ventures’ first investment, to the tune of $15 million, is in Los Angeles-based UP.Partners’ inaugural venture fund. The $230 million early-stage fund will focus on mobility technologies and has garnered additional investment from Woven Capital, the investment arm of Toyota Motor’s Woven Planet Group; Standard Industries; Hillwood; and OSM Maritime.

The airline also said that it would work with UP.Partners on its inaugural investments. While Alaska Star Ventures may consider additional sector-focused fund investments, most of the focus will be on investing in discrete technologies, Alaska Airlines’ VP of public affairs and sustainability Diana Birkett Rakow told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

Alaska Airlines’ intent is to invest in emerging tech that can help it hit its target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. The company also set a nearer-term objective of being the most fuel-efficient airline by 2025 and cutting ground services emissions in half by the same year. Alaska Airlines announced the non-binding targets in April, when it joined a slew of other businesses in joining Amazon’s Climate Pledge.

“When we looked at, what’s our execution plan for that path [to net-zero], we started to realize that there were a lot of areas where technology was essential for us to hit our goals,” she said. “So we decided to set up this investment vehicle to really be a catalyst for finding and accelerating and advancing technologies that help us accelerate that path to net-zero.”

While investments in clean tech are growing, Birkett Rakow said that the move to establish a fund would help the airline identify technologies that are “truly applicable” to the operating environment and could be deployed in the next three to 10 years.

Alaska Airlines chose to contribute to UP.Partners’ first fund because of the deep background and expertise of its two founders, Ben Marcus and Cyrus Sigari, Birkett Rakow explained. The two founded jet sales services company jetAVIVA in 2006, and AirMap in 2014, a traffic management system for unmanned aircraft.

She added that the airline will get a front-row seat to the rapidly changing technology landscape, while also being able to contribute input into what technologies might work in the operating environment. UP.Partners will also act as an adviser and occasionally co-invest with Alaska Star Ventures.

To give a hint at what types of technologies Alaska Star Ventures might fund in the future, Birkett Rakow pointed to the roadmap the airline released alongside its pledge, which established five areas of focus: increasing operational efficiency; evolving the fleet; sustainable aviation fuels (SAF); novel propulsion technology; and credible carbon offsets.

While SAF and propulsion, like batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, tend to garner the most attention — in part because they offer the most promising potential in terms of magnitude at addressing emissions — Birkett Rakow said the new fund will also look at other types of technologies that increase efficiency or cut unnecessary fuel burn.

For example, Alaska Airlines recently partnered with Airspace Intelligence to launch an AI-based system for airplane route optimization, which she said shaved off around five minutes per flight.

“While we didn’t make a financial investment in [Airspace Intelligence], it was a good model for us of how us having access to technology that could make a difference, a significant difference, in our operating performance towards net zero [ … ] really could help this technology be more successful and scale,” she explained.


Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai calls for federal tech regulation, investments in cybersecurity

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 20:06

In a wide-ranging interview at the WSJ Tech Live conference that touched on topics like the future of remote work, AI innovation, employee activism and even misinformation on YouTube, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai also shared his thoughts on the state of tech innovation in the U.S. and the need for new regulations. Specifically, Pichai argued for the creation of a federal privacy standard in the U.S., similar to the GDPR in Europe. He also suggested it was important for the U.S. to stay ahead in areas like AI, quantum computing and cybersecurity, particularly as China’s tech ecosystem further separates itself from Western markets.

In recent months, China has been undergoing a tech crackdown, which has included a number of new regulations designed to combat tech monopolies, limit customer data collection and create new rules around data security, among other things. Although many major U.S. tech companies, Google included, don’t provide their core services in China, some who did are now exiting — like Microsoft, which just this month announced its plan to pull LinkedIn from the Chinese market.

Pichai said this sort of decoupling of Western tech from China may become more common.

He also said it would be important to stay ahead in areas where the U.S. and China compete, like AI, quantum computing and cybersecurity, noting that Google’s investments in these areas comes at a time when governments were slightly pulling back on “basic R&D funding.”

“The government has limited resources and it needs to focus,” noted Pichai, “but all of us are benefiting from foundational investments from 20 to 30 years ago — which is what a lot of the modern tech innovation is based on, and we take it for granted a bit,” he said. “So when I look at the semiconductor supply chain [and] quantum … the government can play a key role, both in terms of policies and allowing us to bring in the best talent from anywhere in the world, or participating with universities and creating some of the longer-term research areas,” Pichai added. These are areas that private companies may not focus on from day one, but play out of 10 to 20 years, he said.

In the wake of increased cyberattacks across borders, Pichai said that the time had come for a sort of “Geneva Convention equivalent” for the cyber world, adding that governments should put security and regulation higher on their agendas.

He more directly argued in favor of new federal privacy regulations in the U.S. — something Google has pushed for many times in the past — suggesting that something like the GDPR in Europe is warranted.

“I think the GDPR has been a great foundation,” said Pichai. “I would really like to see a federal privacy standard in the U.S. and worried about a patchwork of regulations in states. That adds a lot of complexity,” he continued, noting that “larger companies can cope with more regulations and entrench themselves, whereas for a smaller company to start,  it can be a real tax.”

That’s a point that’s been consistently brought up when Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg calls for regulation, too. A more regulated U.S. tech industry could work in favor of larger companies like Facebook and Google that have the resources to address the regulatory hurdles. But a single federal standard could also give Big Tech only one law to battle against, instead of many scattered across the U.S. states.

Pichai additionally tied consumer privacy to security, even noting that “one of the biggest risks to privacy is the data getting compromised” — an interesting statement coming only days after Amazon, a top Google rival, saw its game streaming site Twitch hacked.

As for where to draw the line in regulating tech, Pichai said the law shouldn’t encroach on the open internet.

“I think the internet works well because it’s interoperable, it’s open, it works across borders, promotes trade across borders … and so, as we evolve and regulate the internet, I think it’s important to preserve those attributes,” he noted.

The exec also responded to many other questions about ongoing issues Alphabet and Google are facing, like the pandemic impacts to corporate culture, employee activism, misinformation on YouTube and more.

On the latter, Pichai expressed a commitment to freedom of experience but noted at the end of the day, the company was trying to balance content creators, users and advertisers. He said many brand advertisers would not want their ads to appear next to some types of content. Essentially, he suggested that the nature of YouTube’s ads-based economy could help to solve the misinformation problem.

“You can look at it from a free-market basis and say, [advertisers] don’t want their ads next to content because they think it’s brand-negative. So, in some ways, the incentives of the ecosystem actually help get to the right decision over time.”

He sidestepped the interviewer’s question as to whether YouTube was basically acting as a publisher as it made its content decisions, however.

Pichai also talked about Alphabet’s corporate culture in the pandemic era and going back to the office, saying that a three-two model (meaning three days of in-person versus two days remote) can offer better balance. The in-person days allow for collaboration and community, while the remote days help employees better manage the issues that traditionally came with in-person work, like longer commutes. However, in another part of the interview, he spoke of missing his own commute, now that he does it less, saying it was time where he had the space for “deeper thinking.”

As for employee activism — which is seeing more activity as of late as tech companies grapple with large and diverse staffs who often share contradictory opinions on the decisions made at the executive level — Pichai says this is the “new normal” for business. But it’s also nothing new for Google, he pointed out. (Years ago, Google employees were protesting the company’s work on a censored search engine for the Chinese market, for instance.)

“If anything, we’ve been used to it for a while,” said Pichai, noting that the best the company could do is to try to explain its decisions.

“I view it as a strength of the company, at a high level, having employees be so engaged they deeply care about what the company does,” he said.


WhatsApp is integrating its joinable calls feature directly into group chats

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 19:28

WhatsApp announced on Monday that it’s expanding its joinable calls feature to group chats. Joinable calls, which were first introduced in July, allow users to join an ongoing group call after it has begun. With this latest expansion, users can now call a WhatsApp group and join the call directly from a group chat window.

The company also notes that the call notification will now display the name of the group instead of the participants’ names. The ongoing call is shown in the chat list, so users can see which groups have live calls as soon as they open the app.

“We are making it easier to connect spontaneously with your groups. Join ongoing calls with your groups anytime, effortlessly and directly from the chat view with one click,” WhatsApp said in a statement. “With group calling growing in popularity, integrating joinable calls gives WhatsApp users a new spontaneous way to connect with their family and friends groups.”

Additionally, WhatsApp says the calls will now have a light distinct ringtone, making them feel “as light as sending and receiving a message.”

The Facebook-owned company has been rolling out several new features over the past few months to retain and attract new users. Most recently, WhatsApp announced that it’s beginning to roll out a new feature that will allow users to encrypt their chat history backup in iCloud or Google Drive. Although the company offers encrypted chats between users on its platform, users haven’t had the means to protect the backups of those chats stored in the cloud.

The addition of encrypted chat backups addresses a major loophole that has been exploited by governments in order to obtain private communication between users. WhatsApp says it’s providing this new feature to users in every market where the app is operational.


Saildrone catches a $100M C breeze to build more robo-boats

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 19:25

The ocean economy is growing in importance, and with it grows the need to map, understand and track the ocean itself. Saildrone has been doing just that with its fleet of autonomous science vessels, and the company has now raised a massive $100 million round C to pursue its ro-boat aspirations further.

Saildrone’s boats — uncrewed surface vehicles (USVs), as they call them — have been in continuous use for years now, making all kinds of interesting voyages that would be too dangerous or too tedious for a human crew to attempt. For instance earlier this month one of the vessels sailed straight into a hurricane for a NOAA project to better understand these increasingly frequent and violent storms. Good luck getting someone to brave 50-foot waves and 120 mph winds to collect some data when there’s a robotic option.

Having traveled half a million miles collectively, Saildrone’s fleet is the most seasoned set of autonomous boats out there, and that makes for an attractive market position as marine intelligence becomes more important. Not only is knowing the condition of the ocean in a given location helpful for scientific and expected purposes like steering ships around storms, but the vast quantities of systematically collected data will help build a new fundamental understanding of the complex aquatic ecosystem during climate change and a shift toward sustainable aquaculture.

Saildrone is the go-to name in autonomous science boats. Others are approaching the new blue economy from other directions: autonomous tugs and commercial boats from Sea Machines (which recently demonstrated a thousand-mile sailing), while EcoDrone and Sea Proven are looking to compete with smaller or more customizable ships. And there’s a whole separate world of underwater drones that will be zooming around mapping the sea bed, like Bedrock’s.

But Saildrone isn’t standing still, or rather sitting at anchor. Its newest vessel, the Surveyor, can spend a year at sea and map the ocean floor past two miles of depth. They aren’t cheap, though, and if the company wants to capture as much of the “ocean domain intelligence” sector as possible it will need to scale fast. That’s what the hundred mil is for, presumably.

The C round was led by BOND and with participation from XN, Standard Investments, Emerson Collective, Crowley Maritime Corporation, Capricorn’s Technology Impact Fund, Lux Capital, Social Capital and Tribe Capital. The “data insight teams” will be hired up and they’ll put the money to good use on “go-to-market functions,” which I suppose is VC jargon for building boats.

“The combination of the most tried and tested autonomous ocean technology with the partnership of some of the most experienced venture capitalists in the world consolidates our industry leadership and enables our rapid growth path to meet the needs of our customers,” said Saildrone CEO and founder Richard Jenkins in the press release. No doubt we’ll be hearing more about their missions in years to come as their star rises.


What you should know about prepping your startup for the public markets

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 19:23

It’s been an active four quarters for technology IPOs. If you rewind the clock to Q4 2020, we’ve seen megawatt public debuts from tech shops of all sorts. Airbnb recovered from COVID-19-induced lows to list, while Roblox delayed its IPO and went out with a direct listing. DoorDash went public. C3.ai had an explosive offering late last year as well.

Things have largely continued in 2021, with IPOs throughout the first and second quarters leading to debuts from Freshworks, Toast and, most recently, filings from GitLab, Rent the Runway, NerdWallet and others.

Many startup founders aspire to an IPO, even if the average time horizon for the liquidity event has now stretched as capital flows into the private tech market. But how to get a company ready for an IPO isn’t normal fare in startup conversations — it’s a bit like talking about your 21st birthday when you are in middle school. Sure, it’s a thing that will happen someday, but not much of a pressing concern.

You’d think so, at least. The prep process for going public is actually somewhat long if done well, and startups might need to get started with prepping their operations for the public markets earlier than they think. It’s a topic that we explored during TechCrunch Disrupt 2021, where I hosted a conversation with Lux Capital Partner Deena Shakir, Madrona Managing Director Hope Cochran, and CrowdStrike CFO Burt Podbere.

The entire discussion is embedded below, but I’ve pulled out a few key moments for those of you who are more reading-based learners than video-watchers. Topics follow by subheadline, with the video at the bottom. Enjoy!

You can prep too early

Heading into the conversation, I expected to encounter three folks all nodding their heads sagely, intoning in unison that startups can’t really start IPO prep too early. That was not what I wound up hearing. Cochran said this, following my question about how early a startup should start prep for its public debut:

You hear many people talk about, Oh, you need to start thinking about going public really, really early” and building that rigor. I’m actually more on the camp of: “Let’s let the company run and be agile for a while and put in processes as they’re needed.” You will get there in the appropriate amount of time.


Apple wows tech crowd with new chips, Wall Street yawns

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 19:14

Hello again, and welcome back to TechCrunch’s running series of posts discussing how the public markets rarely give even half of a spare fuck concerning what Apple announces at its events.

Indeed, Apple’s stock seems to be far more labile to external events than from internally sourced announcements; rare is the case in which Apple’s stock actually picks up ground in contrast to the Nasdaq Composite during its press-friendly announce-a-thons.

Which never ceases to astound us somewhat. Perhaps Apple’s events are so well-leaked these days that new products are baked into its value?

That argument is perhaps necessary but not sufficient in market terms — participatory but not complete? — as Apple did break some news today regarding its line of PC chips. Yes, Apple did detail the new M1 Pro, but it also blew more than a few minds with its M1 Max chip. Sure, the name is a bucket of boomer cringe, but the chip itself appears to be an incredibly impressive feat. And Apple is baking the new chips into a range of computers that have price points above expectations.

Sitting here, I’m thinking: Killer new hardware, and potentially higher per-computer revenue? Sounds good, right? And yet, Apple’s stock pretty much tracked the Nasdaq during its event, which took place between the hours of 1 pm and 2 pm in the following chart:

The only notable element of that chart is that Apple’s initial declines after 1 pm struck were sharper than what the larger Nasdaq tech collection managed. But then Apple recovered more sharply, leaving the entire trading period essentially a wash — Apple gained ground just as tech shares did. Wee.

If I was an Apple engineer, I’d be livid. Look, world, behold chips that are actually really good. All those years, Intel was screwing over the market by putting out bilge when this was possible! And yet Wall Street is precisely and exactly not impressed.

Ouch.

Apple October Event 2021


Apple notched the new MacBook Pro

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 18:53

Apple has backpedaled on years of questionable design choices with its MacBook Pros, unceremoniously retiring the universally disliked Touch Bar and adding back the ports and MagSafe users have missed. But in a show of perverse solidarity with the iPhone, the company has added a big, ugly notch front and center on the “best notebook screen in the world.”

It must be something of a humbling moment of Apple, despite its seeming bravado, to be forced to acknowledge that it has been told so clearly for so long that so few of its design innovations were valued by its users. As you salivate over this MacBook Pro, don’t forget why you’re hungry in the first place: Apple’s misguided attempts to streamline in pursuit of a slick promo.

The Touch Bar was interesting in theory but ultimately hamstrung by a lack of compelling use cases and the fact that 90% of the time people just wanted the default keys — and the accessibility loss of mapping these crucial features onto an undifferentiated touchscreen was a misstep as well.

Going all USB-C was another aspirational step that had no basis in reality. All it ended up doing was juicing the dongle industry in a big way and making people carry around half a dozen two-inch cables so they could use the various devices and drives they’ve accumulated over the years.

The keyboard design has reverted to a thicker one with a “mechanical feel” (we’ll see) after the dismal failure of the butterfly switches. Turns out people don’t care about losing that last millimeter if it means typing sucks and your keys break on a regular basis.

So, after withdrawing or failing to improve on these and other aspects, Apple has turned around and added them back in as if they were novel ideas. The irony of seeing a commercial touting the power of the M1 Pro Max but there’s an SD card reader assembling itself in the cutaway view is thick and worth savoring.

But then Apple went and did a bad thing.

They notched it

Now, I really don’t like notches. I know that not everyone feels that way. But I find them very distracting both in everyday use and on fullscreen media. A hole punch is even worse, but the notch isn’t great. The new iPhones aren’t as ugly as the old ones, but that notch means I’m sticking with my SE 2 for a while longer. (RIP, original SE … you’ll return some day.)

What appears to have happened is that Apple essentially extended the display upward and closer to the bezel, but couldn’t shrink its new webcam down enough to fit it in there (there’s no Face ID or anything). So in a sense you’re gaining space, or so my perennial Apple apologist colleagues have convinced themselves.

What do you need to do with that middle piece of the menu bar or whatever anyway, they say? It’ll probably be letterboxed out in media; the new screen aspect ratio is taller than 16:9, 2:1, 21:9 and other common ratios. And when you’re in a fullscreen app they’ll black out either side of the notch, so you won’t see it (though on the other hand, it wipes out the extra space you’ve supposedly gained). It’s a net gain, they say.

Yeah, but it’s ugly.

Look, you can’t even see it! Of course, you can’t see the whole top quarter inch. Image Credits: Apple

It’s really a super simple question. Which would you prefer, a screen with a notch or a screen without a notch? The answer is pretty much always “the one without a notch,” because the notch is disruptive to the basic mission of a display, which is to show things. Anything that obtrudes into the rectangle (the shape we now expect) of the display prevents it from using that shape fully and effectively. Fundamentally speaking, everything you show on the screen has a notch taken out of it or otherwise accommodates the notch in some fashion.

Some people truly won’t mind. Some people truly won’t notice. I’m happy for them. But some people also leave “TruMotion HD Smooth” on and make everything on their TV look like a soap opera. Some people have both cold LEDs and warm incandescent bulbs in the same room. Some people don’t organize their books by color. Okay, you get what I’m saying — and the objections of a neurotic aesthetic like mine can go too far.

Tech should be as invisible as is practically possible. The whole industry has been pursuing the reduction of wires and the increase of automation and “smartness” so that their products can be ubiquitous and practically invisible. A little sphere the size of a tennis ball (now in five fabulous new colors) but it’s a conduit to your entire digital world. A pair of little earbuds that “magically” charge themselves, connect automatically and adjust their levels based on the idiosyncrasies of your ear canal. And so on.

A display is meant to be a magic window: a “Retina” display sharp enough to be mistaken for real life; a 120 hz refresh rate to enhance the illusion and prevent lag and blur from noticing the difference between digital and physical; a minimal bezel to minimize the “frontier” between those two worlds. Every advance in displays has been in pursuit of the idea of a more magical window. The notch is a step backward instead of forward, simple as that. It’s less magical; it’s less real; it’s obtrusive and artificial: the digital compromised to admit the physical.

You know it’s true — even if it doesn’t bother you — because as soon as it is physically possible for Apple to remove this notch, they will. They know and we know that screens are better without notches. And when they do, they’ll act like they’ve reinvented the wheel on purpose, like they did today when they touted the return of decade-old features no one asked to be changed in the first place.


Apple to release macOS Monterey on October 25

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 18:26

Apple has unveiled some new MacBook Pro models at a virtual conference today. And the company is timing the release of the next major release of macOS with the new laptop. Mac users will be able to update to macOS Monterey on Monday, October 25. This new major release of macOS will be available for free in the App Store.

macOS Monterey comes with Safari 12, which you might already be using on macOS Big Sur. It lets you create tab groups that you can sync between your devices and it features a brand new design. The new tab design has been controversial but it sounds like Apple isn’t done tweaking it.

FaceTime is also receiving some new features. SharePlay isn’t part of this update just yet, but you’ll now be able to share your screen, turn on Portrait mode, view your friends in a grid view and create links so that people on other devices can join your conversation — yes, even Windows PCs.

The new Focus modes that were introduced with iOS 15 are also coming to the Mac. You’ll be able to create a Work mode, a Gaming mode or whatever you want. When you change your mode on one Apple device, it changes it on all other Apple devices you use.

With macOS Monterey, your Mac is now an AirPlay device. You can send music or videos from your phone to your Mac display. Essentially, it works like AirPlay on an Apple TV.

When it comes to automation, the Shortcuts app is landing on the Mac. It’ll gradually replace Automator, but Automator is sticking around for now.

A ton of apps are also receiving small or big updates, such as Notes, Messages and Maps. And if you like to use your MacBook during long trips, you’ll be able to turn on Low Power Mode on your computer.

If you think your Mac works fine right now, Apple won’t force you to update to macOS Monterey. You can keep using a previous major release of macOS for as long as you want.

Apple October Event 2021


Here’s everything Apple announced at its ‘Unleashed’ event this morning

Permalink - Posted on 2021-10-18 18:10

It’s only been a few weeks since Apple’s last big announcement event, but they’re already at it again.

The last one focused on iPhones and Apple Watches. This time around? They were all about new chips, new AirPods, and new MacBook Pros.

Too busy to follow along live? Here’s pretty much everything you need to know, boiled down to just the bullet points.

New AirPods

airpods 3rd generation price - $179

Image Credits: Apple

The base level (read: non-Pro) AirPods are getting an upgrade — a new look, Spatial audio support, the Pro line’s “force sensor” for controlling music/calls, and improved sweat/water resistance. Apple says the battery life has been improved as well, bumping the promised run time from 5 hours to 6 hours on a single charge.

The third-gen AirPods will ship for $179 beginning next week.

M1 Pro and M1 Max

Apple M1 Max

Apple blew minds when it introduced its own absurdly fast chip with the M1 in 2020. Now they’ve gone and doubled down, introducing not one, but two new M1 chips — the M1 Pro and M1 Max.

Apple says the M1 Pro CPU is up to 70% faster than the original M1, with a GPU up to 2x faster, 32GB of unified memory, and 200GB/s of memory bandwidth.

The M1 Max, meanwhile, bumps the unified memory up to 64GB. Both M1 Pro and M1 Max support up to 10 CPU cores; on the GPU front, the Pro does up to 16-core, while the Max supports up to 32-core.

These things are gonna be really, really fast.

New MacBook Pro

Macbook pro 2021 notch

Image Credits: Apple

Looking to put those new chips to good use, Apple introduced a new generation of Macbook Pros. And in a rare backpedal from the company, some of the MacBook Pro’s more contested recent changes are being undone.

The highlights:

  • It’ll come in two sizes: 16-inch or 14-inch.
  • MagSafe is back! The Touch Bar is gone! It has ports — including an SD card slot, and an HDMI port!
  • 120Hz ProMotion support for smoother scrolling
  • In what’ll probably be the most argued-about aspect of this model, it’s got a camera notch. That lets them squeeze in a bit more screen, but means, well, a notch.
  • The camera has been upgraded to 1080p, with Apple promising doubled performance in low-light.
  • The entire audio system has been overhauled, with larger tweeters and woofers for improved audio fidelity.
  • 14-inch model will start at $1999, while the 16-inch model will start at $2499.

Other Stuff:

  • You’ll now be able to ask Siri to play different themed playlists via Apple Music — like a playlist for relaxing, dinner parties, or hiking.
  • Apple is introducing a new $5 per month “Voice Plan” for Apple Music — basically, as we understand it, a cheaper plan for those willing to ditch the interface and use only Siri for queueing up songs.
  • HomePod mini will now come in three new colors: dark blue, orange, and yellow.

homepod mini colors

Image Credits: Apple

Apple October Event 2021