12 Paris-based VCs look at the state of their city

Four years after the Great Recession, France’s newly elected socialist president François Hollande raised taxes and increased regulations on founder-led startups. The subsequent flight of entrepreneurs to places like London and Silicon Valley portrayed France as a tough place to launch a company. By 2016, France’s national statistics bureau estimated that about three million native-born citizens had moved abroad.

Those who remained fought back: The Family was an early accelerator that encouraged French entrepreneurs to adopt Silicon Valley’s startup methodology, and the 2012 creation of Bpifrance, a public investment bank, put money into the startup ecosystem system via investors. Organizers founded La French Tech to beat the drum about native startups.

When President Emmanuel Macron took office in May 2017, he scrapped the wealth tax on everything except property assets and introduced a flat 30% tax rate on capital gains. Station F, a giant startup campus funded by billionaire entrepreneur Xavier Niel on the site of a former railway station, began attracting international talent. Tony Fadell, one of the fathers of the iPod and founder of Nest Labs, moved to Paris to set up investment firm Future Shape; VivaTech was created with government backing to become one of Europe’s largest startup conference and expos.

Now, in the COVID-19 era, the government has made €4 billion available to entrepreneurs to keep the lights on. According to a recent report from VC firm Atomico, there are 11 unicorns in France, including BlaBlaCar, OVHcloud, Deezer and Veepee. More appear to be coming; last year Macron said he wanted to see “25 French unicorns by 2025.”

According to Station F, by the end of August, there had been 24 funding rounds led by international VCs and a few big transactions. Enterprise artificial intelligence and machine-learning platform Dataiku raised a $100 million Series D round, and Paris-based gaming startup Voodoo raised an undisclosed amount from Tencent Holdings.

We asked 12 Paris -based investors to comment on the state of play in their city:

Alison Imbert, Partech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?

All the fintechs addressing SMBs to help them to focus more on their core business (including banks disintermediation by fintech, new infrastructures tech that are lowering the barrier to entry to nonfintech companies).

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?

77foods (plant-based bacon) — love that alternative proteins trend as well. Obviously, we need to transform our diet toward more sustainable food. It’s the next challenge for humanity.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Impact investment: Logistic companies tackling the life cycle of products to reduce their carbon footprint and green fintech that reinvent our spending and investment strategy around more sustainable products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
D2C products.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% investing in France as I’m managing Paris Saclay Seed Fund, a €53 million fund, investing in pre-seed and seed startups launched by graduates and researchers from the best engineering and business schools from this ecosystem.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Deep tech, biotech and medical devices. Paris, and France in general, has thousands of outstanding engineers that graduate each year. Researchers are more and more willing to found companies to have a true impact on our society. I do believe that the ecosystem is more and more structured to help them to build such companies.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Paris is booming for sure. It’s still behind London and Berlin probably. But we are seeing more and more European VC offices opening in the city to get direct access to our ecosystem. Even in seed rounds, we start to have European VCs competing against us. It’s good — that means that our startups are moving to the next level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
For sure startups will more and more push for remote organizations. It’s an amazing way to combine quality of life for employees and attracting talent. Yet I don’t think it will be the majority. Not all founders are willing/able to build a fully remote company. It’s an important cultural choice and it’s adapted to a certain type of business. I believe in more flexible organization (e.g., tech team working remotely or 1-2 days a week for any employee).

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality sectors are of course hugely impacted. Yet there are opportunities for helping those incumbents to face current challenges (e.g., better customer care and services, stronger flexibility, cost reduction and process automation).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Cash is king more than ever before. My only piece of advice will be to keep a good level of cash as we have a limited view on events coming ahead. It’s easy to say but much more difficult to put in practice (e.g., to what extend should I reduce my cash burn? Should I keep on investing in the product? What is the impact on the sales team?). Startups should focus only on what is mission-critical for their clients. Yet it doesn’t impact our seed investments as we invest pre-revenue and often pre-product.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
There is no reason to be hopeless. Crises have happened in the past. Humanity has faced other pandemics. Humans are resilient and resourceful enough to adapt to a new environment and new constraints.


By Mike Butcher

Eden intros SaaS tools in a bid to become a more comprehensive office management platform

Eden, the office management platform founded by Joe du Bey, is today announcing the launch of several new enterprise software features. The company, which offers a marketplace for office managers to procure services like office cleaning, repairs, etc., is looking to offer a more comprehensive platform.

The software features include a COVID team safety tool that tracks who is coming into the office, and lets them reserve a specific desk to help ensure social distancing precautions are being taken.

“For us, the pandemic really accelerated our plans around enterprise tools,” said Joe du Bey. “We realized by talking to our clients that what they need right now isn’t services. Services are important, but what they really want in this moment is to have software so they can get back into the office.”

Eden is also introducing a service desk ticketing tool to allow workers to make requests or file a ticket for a broken piece of equipment from their own desktop, as well as a visitor management tool and a room booking tool.

The company’s acquisition of Managed By Q, its biggest competitor in the services space, also greatly accelerated its ability to deliver software. Managed By Q, which was acquired by WeWork in 2019 for $220 million, was already on the trajectory of building out software well before its acquisition by Eden, and had itself acquired companies like Hivy to offer SaaS-based tools to customers.

As Eden grows its product portfolio, competition still abounds. Envoy (with just under $60 million in funding) has been in the visitor management space since its inception and is looking to broaden its product portfolio beyond office visitors. UpKeep is charging into the service ticket space with a mobile app to make it easier for service workers within an office to do their job and move seamlessly from task to task. Meanwhile, Robin is in the mix with its own room booking platform.

The point? There is clearly a rush to build out a platform that helps folks manage the physical space of an office and the people within it. Eden, with $40 million in total funding, is well positioned to duke it out for the top spot among a variety of competitors who are angling to ‘do it all.’

“This is a board meeting question: are we fighting too many battles or is comprehensiveness our most important asset?” said du Bey. “We have a completeness to our vision. A lot of our customers are saying they want a few tools from one place versus the very fragmented experience they have today. But there are trade offs in comprehensiveness. It means that someone can can spend all day building a hundred integrations for their app that for us might not be possible. So, there are some really interesting trade offs.”

That’s not without hardship, however. Eden had to layoff about 40 percent of its workforce amid the coronavirus pandemic. And though COVID has slowed growth, du Bey says that revenue in April 2020 was still higher than it was the year prior.

Alongside trying to support marketplace partners and customers through the pandemic, Eden has also introduced new ways to search for service providers, including a way to solicit a bid from black-owned businesses in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Eden team is 52 percent female. Black employees represent 12 percent of the workforce, and Latinx employees represent 8 percent of the workforce.


By Jordan Crook

Mode raises $33M to supercharge its analytics platform for data scientists

Data science is the name of the game these days for companies that want to improve their decision making by tapping the information they are already amassing in their apps and other systems. And today, a startup called Mode Analytics, which has built a platform incorporating machine learning, business intelligence and big data analytics to help data scientists fulfil that task, is announcing $33 million in funding to continue making its platform ever more sophisticated.

Most recently, for example, the company has started to introduce tools (including SQL and Python tutorials) for less technical users, specifically those in product teams, so that they can structure queries that data scientists can subsequently execute faster and with more complete responses — important for the many follow up questions that arise when a business intelligence process has been run. Mode claims that its tools can help produce answers to data queries in minutes.

This Series D is being led by SaaS specialist investor H.I.G. Growth Partners, with previous investors Valor Equity Partners, Foundation Capital, REV Venture Partners, and Switch Ventures all participating. Valor led Mode’s Series C in February 2019, while Foundation and REV respectively led its A and B rounds.

Mode is not disclosing its valuation, but co-founder and CEO Derek Steer confirmed in an interview that it was “absolutely” an up-round.

For some context, PitchBook notes that last year its valuation was $106 million. The company now has a customer list that it says covers 52% of the Forbes 500, including Anheuser Busch, Zillow, Lyft, Bloomberg, Capital One, VMWare, and Conde Nast. It says that to date it has processed 830 million query runs and 170 million notebook cell runs for 300,000 users. (Pricing is based on a freemium model, with a free “Studio” tier and Business and Enterprise tiers priced based on size and use.)

Mode has been around since 2013, when it was co-founded by Steer, Benn Stancil (Mode’s current president) and Josh Ferguson (initially the CTO and now chief architect).

Steer said the impetus for the startup came out of gaps in the market that the three had found through years of experience at other companies.

Specifically, when all three were working together at Yammer (they were early employees and stayed on after the Microsoft acquisition), they were part of a larger team building custom data analytics tools for Yammer. At the time, Steer said Yammer was paying $1 million per year to subscribe to Vertica (acquired by HP in 2011) to run it.

They saw an opportunity to build a platform that could provide similar kinds of tools — encompassing things like SQL Editors, Notebooks, and reporting tools and dashboards — to a wider set of users.

“We and other companies like Facebook and Google were building analytics internally,” Steer recalled, “and we knew that the world wanted to work more like these tech companies. That’s why we started Mode.”

All the same, he added, “people were not clearly exactly about what a data scientist even was.”

Indeed, Mode’s growth so far has mirrored that of the rise of data science overall, as the discipline of data science, and the business case for employing data scientists to help figure out what is “going on” beyond the day to day, getting answers by tapping all the data that’s being amassed in the process of just doing business. That means Mode’s addressable market has also been growing.

But even if the trove of potential buyers of Mode’s products has been growing, so has the opportunity overall. There has been a big swing in data science and big data analytics in the last several years, with a number of tech companies building tools to help those who are less technical “become data scientists” by introducing more intuitive interfaces like drag-and-drop features and natural language queries.

They include the likes of Sisense (which has been growing its analytics power with acquisitions like Periscope Data), Eigen (focusing on specific verticals like financial and legal queries), Looker (acquired by Google) and Tableau (acquired by Salesforce).

Mode’s approach up to now has been closer to that of another competitor, Alteryx, focusing on building tools that are still aimed primary at helping data scientists themselves. You have any number of database tools on the market today, Steer noted, “Snowflake, Redshift, BigQuery, Databricks, take your pick.” The key now is in providing tools to those using those databases to do their work faster and better.

That pitch and the success of how it executes on it is what has given the company success both with customers and investors.

“Mode goes beyond traditional Business Intelligence by making data faster, more flexible and more customized,” said Scott Hilleboe, MD, H.I.G. Growth Partners, in a statement. “The Mode data platform speeds up answers to complex business problems and makes the process more collaborative, so that everyone can build on the work of data analysts. We believe the company’s innovations in data analytics uniquely position it to take the lead in the Decision Science marketplace.”

Steer said that fundraising was planned long before the coronavirus outbreak to start in February, which meant that it was timed as badly as it could have been. Mode still raised what it wanted to in a couple of months — “a good raise by any standard,” he noted — even if it’s likely that the valuation suffered a bit in the process. “Pitching while the stock market is tanking was terrifying and not something I would repeat,” he added.

Given how many acquisitions there have been in this space, Steer confirmed that Mode too has been approached a number of times, but it’s staying put for now. (And no, he wouldn’t tell me who has been knocking, except to say that it’s large companies for whom analytics is an “adjacency” to bigger businesses, which is to say, the very large tech companies have approached Mode.)

“The reason we haven’t considered any acquisition offers is because there is just so much room,” Steer said. “I feel like this market is just getting started, and I would only consider an exit if I felt like we were handicapped by being on our own. But I think we have a lot more growing to do.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Macro just raised $4.3M to make your never-ending Zoom calls more useful

In this pandemic world, in-person meetings are a thing of the past. Most meetings these days are done via video conference, and no company has capitalized on the shift quite like Zoom.

Macro, a new FirstMark-backed company, is looking to capitalize on the capitalization. To Capitalism!

Sorry. Let’s get back on track. Macro is a native app that employs the Zoom SDK to add depth and analysis to your daily work meetings.

There are two modes. The first is essentially focused on collaboration, which turns the usual Zoom meeting into a light overlay, where folks are shown in small, circular bubbles at the top of the screen. This mode is to be used when folks are working on the same project, such as a wireframe or a collaborative document. The UI is meant to kind of fade into the background, allowing users to click on taps or objects behind other attendees’ bubbles.

The other mode is an Arena or Stadium mode, which is meant for hands-on meetings and presentations. It has two distinct features. The first is an Airtime feature, which shows how much different participants have ‘had the floor’ for the past five minutes, thirty minutes, or in total during the meeting. The second is a text-input system on the right side of the UI that lets people enter Questions, Takeaways, Action Items and Insights from the call.

Macro automatically adds that text to a Google Doc, and formats it into something instantly shareable.

There is no extra hassle involved in getting Macro up and running. When a user installs Macro on their computer, they’re instantly loaded into Macro each time they click a Zoom link, whether it’s in an email, a calendar invite, or in Slack.

Macro cofounders Ankith Harathi and John Keck explained to TechCrunch that this isn’t your usual enterprise play. The product is free to use and, with the Google Doc export, is still useful even as a single-player product. The Google Doc is auto-formatted with Macro messaging, explaining that it was compiled by the company with a link to the product.

In other words, Harathi and Keck want to see individuals within organizations get Macro for themselves and let the product grow organically within an organization, rather than trying to sell to large teams right off the bat.

“A lot of collaborative productivity SaaS applications need your whole team to switch over to get any value out of them,” said Harathi. “That’s a pretty big barrier, especially since so many new products are coming out and teams are constantly switching and that creates a lot of noise. So our plan was to ensure one person can use this and get value out of it, and nobody else is affected. They get the better interface and other team members will want to switch over without any requirement to do so.”

This is possible in large part to the cost of the Zoom SDK, which is $0. The heavy lifting of audio and video is handled by Zoom, as is the high compute cost. This means that Macro can offer its product for free at a relatively low cost to the company as it tries to grow.

Of course, there is some risk involved with building on an existing platform. Namely, one Zoom platform change could wreak havoc on Macro’s product or model. However, the team has plans to expand beyond Zoom to other video conferencing platforms like Google, BlueJeans, WebEx, etc. Roelof Botha told TechCrunch back in May that businesses built on other platforms have a much greater chance of success when there is platform across that sector, as there certainly is here.

And there seems to be some competition for Macro in particular — for one, Microsoft Teams just added some new features to its video conferencing UI to relieve brain fatigue and Hello is looking to offer app-free video chat via browser.

Macro is also looking to add additional functionality to the platform, such as the ability to integrate an agenda into the meeting and break up the accompanying Google doc by agenda item.

The company has raised a total of $4.8 million since launch, including a new $4.3 million seed round from FirstMark Capital, General Catalyst and Underscore VC. Other investors include NextView Ventures, Jason Warner (CTO GitHub), Julie Zhuo (former VP Design Facebook), Harry Stebbings (Founder/Host of 20minVC), Adam Nash (Dropbox, Wealthfront, LinkedIn), Clark Valberg (CEO Invision), among others.

Macro has more than 25,000 users and has been a part of 50,000 meetings to date.


By Jordan Crook

Verizon partners with Airtel to launch BlueJeans in India

Bharti Airtel announced on Tuesday it has partnered with Verizon* to launch BlueJeans video-conferencing service in India to serve business customers in the world’s second largest internet market.

The video conferencing service, branded as Airtel BlueJeans in India, offers “enterprise-grade security” (which includes encrypted calls, ability to lock and password protect a meeting and generate randomized meeting IDs), a cloud point presence in India to enable low latency, HD video and Dolby Voice, and can accommodate up to 50,000 participants on a call.

Gopal Vittal, chief executive of Airtel, said in a call with reporters Tuesday that the Indian telecom operator is exploring ways to bring Airtel BlueJeans to home customers as well, though he cautioned that any such offering would take at least a few weeks to hammer out.

Airtel BlueJeans is being offered to businesses at no charge for the first three months, after which the video conferencing service will be offered at a “very competitive” price, said Vittal. Airtel will offer customized pricing plans for large businesses and small businesses, he added.

Airtel, the third largest telecom operator in India with 300 million subscribers, already maintains a partnership with G Suite and Cisco Webex, and Zoom. However, Vittal said that its collaboration with Verizon was “special” and enabled it to host data in India itself.

Verizon acquired BlueJeans in April this year. At the time, BlueJeans had over 15,000 business customers. Hans Vestberg, chief executive of Verizon, said on Tuesday that the American telecom giant was hopeful that Airtel BlueJeans would make major inroads in the Indian market, though he declined to share any figures.

Vestberg said Verizon is open to extending this partnership with Airtel to serve the Indian telecom operator’s business in African market, though both are currently focused on serving clients in India.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as video conferencing services have gained impressive momentum in India in recent months. Zoom app, which is also available to consumers, has already amassed over 35 million monthly active users in the country, according to mobile insights firm App Annie — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

Reliance Jio Platforms, the top telecom operator in India with nearly 400 million subscribers, launched its video conferencing service JioMeet earlier this month. JioMeet is currently available to both consumers and business customers at no charge and a session on the service can last for up to 24 hours.

“We know we are not the first to launch a video conferencing in India, but we are confident that our differentiated offerings and brand value would stand out,” said Vittal.

Airtel BlueJeans, which includes BlueJeans’ Meetings, Events, Rooms, and Gateway for Microsoft Teams functionalities, will go live in India Tuesday evening.

*Verizon is TechCrunch’s parent company.


By Manish Singh

Watchful is a mobile product intelligence startup that surfaces unreleased features

Meet Watchful, a Tel Aviv-based startup coming out of stealth that wants to help you learn more about what your competitors are doing when it comes to mobile app development. The company tries to identify features that are being tested before getting rolled out to everyone, giving you an advantage if you’re competing with those apps.

Mobile app development has become a complex task, especially for the biggest consumer apps, from social to e-commerce. Usually, mobile development teams work on a new feature and try it out on a small subset of users. That process is called A/B testing as you separate your customers in two buckets — bucket A or bucket B.

For instance, Twitter is trying out its own version of Stories called Fleets. The company first rolled it out in Brazil to track the reaction and get some data from its user base. If you live anywhere else in the world, you’re not going to see that feature.

There are other ways to select a group of users to try out a new feature — you could even take part in a test because you’ve been randomly picked.

“When you open the app, you’ll probably see a different version from the app I see. You’re in a different region, you have a different device,” co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana told me. He previously founded popular to-do app Any.do.

For product designers, it has become a nightmare as you can’t simply open an app and look at what your competitors are doing. At any point in time, there are many different versions of the same app as there are multiple A/B tests going on at the same time.

Watchful lets you learn from competition by analyzing all those different versions and annotating changes in user flows, flagging unreleased features and uncovering design changes.

It is different from other mobile intelligence startups, such as App Annie or Sensor Tower. Those services mostly let you track downloads and rankings on the App Store and Play store to uncover products that are doing well.

“We’re focused on everything that is open and visible to the users,” Kahana said.

Like other intelligence startups, Watchful needs data. App Annie acquired a VPN app called Distimo and a data usage monitoring app called Mobidia. When you activate those apps, App Annie captures data about your phone usage, such as the number of times you open an app and how much time you spend in those apps.

According to a BuzzFeed News report, Sensor Tower has operated at least 20 apps on iOS and Android to capture data, such as Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data and Adblock Focus. Some of those apps have been removed from the stores following BuzzFeed’s story.

I asked a lot of questions about Watchful’s source of data. “It’s all real users that give us access to this information. It’s all running on real devices, real users. We extract videos and screenshots from them,” Kahana said.

“It’s more like a panel of users that we have access to their devices. It’s not an SDK that is hidden in some app and collects information and do shady stuff,” he added.

You’ll have to trust him as the company didn’t want to elaborate further. Kahana also said that data is anonymized in order to remove all user information.

Images are then analyzed by a computer vision algorithm focused on differential analysis. The startup has a team in the Philippines that goes through all that data and annotates it. It is then sent to human analysts so that they can track apps and write reports.

Watchful shared one of those reports with TechCrunch earlier this year. Thanks to this process, the startup discovered that TikTok parent company ByteDance has been working on a deepfake maker. The feature was spotted in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin.

But Watchful’s customers aren’t news organizations. The company sells access to its service to big companies working in the mobile space. Kahana didn’t want to name them, but it said it is already working with “the biggest social network players and the biggest e-commerce players, mainly in the U.S.”

The startup sells annual contracts based on the number of apps that you want to track. It has raised a $3 million seed round led by Vertex Ventures.


By Romain Dillet

Is Zoom the next Android, or the next BlackBerry?

In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured out… a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.


By Walter Thompson

India’s richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

The major deals for Reliance Jo Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the “worst time” as new checks become elusive.

Elsewhere in India, the world’s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said this week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

Facebook’s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

It’s a long story.

Run up to the launch of Jio

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

“Reliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,” said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.


By Manish Singh

Health APIs usher in the patient revolution we have been waiting for

If you’ve ever been stuck using a health provider’s clunky online patient portal or had to make multiple calls to transfer medical records, you know how difficult it is to access your health data.

In an era when control over personal data is more important than ever before, the healthcare industry has notably lagged behind — but that’s about to change. This past month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published two final rules around patient data access and interoperability that will require providers and payers to create APIs that can be used by third-party applications to let patients access their health data.

This means you will soon have consumer apps that will plug into your clinic’s health records and make them viewable to you on your smartphone.

Critics of the new rulings have voiced privacy concerns over patient health data leaving internal electronic health record (EHR) systems and being surfaced to the front lines of smartphone apps. Vendors such as Epic and many health providers have publicly opposed the HHS rulings, while others, such as Cerner, have been supportive.

While that debate has been heated, the new HHS rulings represent a final decision that follows initial rules proposed a year ago. It’s a multi-year win for advocates of greater data access and control by patients.

The scope of what this could lead to — more control over your health records, and apps on top of it — is immense. Apple has been making progress with its Health Records app for some time now, and other technology companies, including Microsoft and Amazon, have undertaken healthcare initiatives with both new apps and cloud services.

It’s not just big tech that is getting in on the action: startups are emerging as well, such as Commure and Particle Health, which help developers work with patient health data. The unlocking of patient health data could be as influential as the unlocking of banking data by Plaid, which powered the growth of multiple fintech startups, including Robinhood, Venmo and Betterment.

What’s clear is that the HHS rulings are here to stay. In fact, many of the provisions require providers and payers to provide partial data access within the next 6-12 months. With this new market opening up, though, it’s time for more health entrepreneurs to take a deeper look at what patient data may offer in terms of clinical and consumer innovation.

The incredible complexity of today’s patient data systems


By Walter Thompson

Leverice is a team messenger app that’s taking aim at information overload

Meet Leverice: A team messenger and collaboration platform that’s aiming to compete with b2b giants like Slack by tackling an issue that continues to plague real-time messaging — namely, ‘always-on’ information overload. This means these tools can feel like they’re eating into productivity as much as aiding it. Or else leave users stressed and overwhelmed about how to stay on top of the work comms firehose. 

Leverice’s pitch is that it’s been built from the ground up to offer a better triage structure so vital bits of info aren’t lost in rushing rivers of chatter than flow across less structured chat platforms.

It does this by giving users the ability to organize chat content into nested subchannels. So its theory is that hyper structured topic channels will let users better direct and navigate info flow, freeing them from the need to check everything or perform lots of searches in order to find key intel. Instead they can just directly drill down to specific subchannels, tuning out the noise.

The overarching aim is to bring a little asynchronicity to the world of real-time collaboration platforms, per co-founder and COO Daniel Velton.

“Most messaging and collaboration tools are designed for and built around synchronous communications, instant back-and-forth. But most members of remote teams communicate at their own pace — and there was no go-to messaging tool built around asynchronous communications,” he tells TechCrunch.

“We set out to solve that problem, to build a messenger and collaboration platform that breaks rivers down into rivulets. To do that, we needed a tech stack and unique architecture that would allow teams to efficiently work with hundreds of channels and subchannels distributed between scores of channel branches of varying depths. Having that granularity ensures that each little shelf maintains topical integrity.

“We’re not discussing Feature 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 and 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 inside a single ‘Features’ channel, where the discussions would blend together. Each has its own little home.”

Of course Slack isn’t blind to the info-overload issues its platform can generate. Last month it announced “a simpler, more organized Slack”, which includes the ability for users to organize channels, messages and apps into “custom, collapsible sections”. Aka folders.

So how is Leverice’s subchannel architecture a great leap forward on the latest version of Slack — which does let users organize themselves (and is now in the process of being rolled out across its user-base)?

“All structuring (including folders) on other popular messengers is essentially an individual preference setting,” says Velton. “It does not reflect on a teamwide channel tree. It’s definitely a step in the right direction but it’s about each user adding a tiny bit of structure to their own private interface, not having a structure that affects and improves the way an entire team communicates.

“Leverice architecture is based on structuring of channels and subchannels into branches of unlimited depth. This kind of deep structuring is not something you can simply ‘overlay’ on top of an existing messenger that was designed around a single layer of channels. A tremendous number of issues arise when you work with a directory-like structure of infinite depth, and these aren’t easily solved or addressed unless the architecture is built around it.”

“Sure, in Leverice you can build the ‘6-lane autobahns’,” he adds, using an analogy of vehicle traffic on roads to illustrate the concept of a hierarchy of topic channels. “But we are the only messenger where you can also construct a structured network of ‘country roads’. It’s more ‘places’ but each ‘place’ is so narrow and topical that working through it all becomes more manageable, quick and pleasant, and it’s something you can do at your own pace without fear of missing important kernels of information as they fly by on the autobahn.”

To be clear, while Slack has now started letting users self-organize — by creating a visual channel hierarchy that suits them — Leverice’s structure means the same structured tree of channels/subchannels applies for the whole team.

“At the end of the day, for communications to work, somebody on a team needs to be organized,” argues Velton. “What we allow is structuring that affects the channel tree for an entire team, not just an individual preference that reflects only on a user’s local device.”

Leverice has other features in the pipeline which it reckons will further help users cut through the noise — with a plan to apply AI-powered prioritization to surface the most pressing inbound comms.

There will also be automated alerts for conversation forks when new subchannels are created. (Though generating lots of subchannel alerts doesn’t sound exactly noise-free…)

“We have features coming that alert users to forks in a conversation and nudge the user toward those new subchannels. At this stage those forks are created manually, although our upcoming AI module will have nudges based on those forks,” says Velton.

“The architecture (deep structuring) also opens the door to scripting of automated workflows and open source plug-ins,” he adds.

Leverice officially launched towards the end of February after a month-long beta which coincided with the coronavirus-induced spike in remote work.

At this stage they have “members of almost 400 teams” registered on the platform, per Velton, with initial traction coming from mid-size tech companies — who he says are either unhappy with the costs of their current messaging platform or with distraction/burnout caused by “channel fatigue”; or who are facing info fragmentation as internal teams are using different p2p/messaging tools and lack a universal choice.

“We have nothing but love and respect for our competitors,” he adds. “Slack, Teams, WhatsApp, Telegram, Skype, Viber, etc.: each have their own benefits and many teams are perfectly content to use them. Our product is for teams looking for more focus and structure than existing solutions offer. Leverice’s architecture is unique on the market, and it opens the door to powerful features that are neither technically nor practically feasible in a messenger with a single layer containing a dozen or two dozen channels.”

Other differentiating features he highlights as bringing something fresh to the team messaging platform conversation are a whiteboard feature that lets users collaborate in the app for brainstorming or listing ideas, prorities; and a Jira integration for managing and discussing tasks in the project- and issue-tracking tool. The team is planning further integrations including with Zoom, Google Docs and “other services you use most”.

The startup — which was founded by CEO Rodion Zhitomirsky in Minsk but is now headquartered in San Jose, California, also with offices in Munich, Germany — has been bootstrapping development for around two years, taking in angel investment of around $600,000.

“We are three friends who managed complex project-based teams and personally felt the pains of all the popular messengers out there,” says Velton, discussing how they came to set up the business. “We used all the usual suspects, and even tried using p2p messengers as substitutes. They all led us and our teams to the same place: we couldn’t track large amounts of communications unless we were in “always-on” mode. We knew there had to be a better way, so we set out to build Leverice.”

The third co-founder is Dennis Dokutchitz.

Leverice’s business model is freemium, with a free tier, a premium tier, and a custom enterprise tier. As well as offering the platform as SaaS via the cloud, they do on-premise installations — for what Velton describes as “the highest level of security and privacy”.

On the security front the product is not end-to-end encrypted but he says the team is developing e2e encrypted channels to supplement the client-server encryption it applies as standard.

Velton notes these forthcoming channels would not support the usual search features, while AI analysis would be limited to “meta-information analysis”, i.e. excluding posts’ content.

“We don’t process customer or message data for commercial purposes, only for internal analytics and features to improve the product for users,” he adds when asked about any additional uses made of customer data. (Leverice’s Privacy Policy can be found here.)

With remote work the order of the day across most of the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems likely there will be a new influx of collaboration tools being unboxed to help home workers navigate a new ‘professionally distant’ normal.

“We’ve only been on the market for 6 weeks and have no meaningful revenue to speak of as of yet,” adds Velton.


By Natasha Lomas

Replace non-stop Zoom with remote office avatars app Pragli

Could avatars that show what co-workers are up to save work-from-home teams from constant distraction and loneliness? That’s the idea behind Pragli, the Bitmoji for the enterprise. It’s a virtual office app that makes you actually feel like you’re in the same building.

Pragli uses avatars to signal whether co-workers are at their desk, away, in a meeting, in the zone while listening to Spotify, taking a break at a digital virtual watercoooler, or done for the day. From there, you’ll know whether to do a quick ad-hoc audio call, cooperate via screenshare, schedule a deeper video meeting, or a send a chat message they can respond to later. Essentially, it translates the real word presence cues we use to coordinate collaboration into an online workplace for distributed teams.

“What Slack did for email, we want to do for video conferencing” Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno tells me. “Traditional video conferencing is exclusive by design, whereas Pragli is inclusive. Just like in an office, you can see who is talking to who.” That means less time wasted planning meetings, interrupting colleagues who are in flow, or waiting for critical responses. Pragli offers the focus that makes remote work productive with the togetherness that keeps everyone sane and in sync.

The idea is to solve the top three problems that Pragli’s extensive interviews and a Buffer/AngelList study discovered workers hate:

  1. Communication friction
  2. Loneliness
  3. Lack of boundaries boundaries

You never have to worry about whether you’re intruding on someone’s meeting, or if it’d be quicker to hash something out on a call instead of vague text. Avatars give remote workers a sense of identity, while the Pragli watercooler provides a temporary place to socialize rather than an endless Slack flood of GIFs. And since you clock in and out of the Pragli office just like a real one, co-workers understand when you’ll reply quickly versus when you’ll respond tomorrow unless there’s an emergency.

“In Pragli, you log into the office in the morning and there’s a clear sense of when I’m working and when I’m not working. Slack doesn’t give you a strong sense if they’re online or offline” Safreno explains. “Everyone stays online and feels pressured to respond at any time of day.”

Pragli co-founder Doug Safreno

Safreno and his co-founder Vivek Nair know the feeling first-hand. After both graduating in computer science from Stanford, they built StacksWare to help enterprise software customers avoid overpaying by accurately measuring their usage. But when they sold StacksWare to Avi Networks, they spent two years working remotely for the acquirer. The friction and loneliness quickly crept in.

They’d message someone, not hear back for a while, then go back and forth trying to discuss the problem before eventually scheduling a call. Jumping into synchronous communicating would have been much more efficient. “The loneliness was more subtle, but it built up after the first few weeks” Safreno recalls. “We simply didn’t socially bond while working remotely as well as in the office. Being lonely was de-motivating, and it negatively affected our productivity.”

The founders interviewed 100 remote engineers, and discovered that outside of scheduled meetings, they only had one audio or video call with co-workers per week. That convinced them to start Pragli a year ago to give work-from-home teams a visual, virtual facsimile of a real office. With no other full-time employees, the founders built and released a beta of Pragli last year. Usage grew 6X in March and is up 20X since January 1st.

Today Pragli officially launches, and it’s free until June 1st. Then it plans to become freemium with the full experience reserved for companies that pay per user per month. Pragli is also announcing a small pre-seed round today led by K9 Ventures, inspired by the firm’s delight using the product itself.

To get started with Pragi, teammates download the Pragli desktop app and sign in with Google, Microsoft, or Github. User then customize their avatar with a wide range of face, hair, skin, and clothing options. It can use your mouse and keyboard interaction to show if you’re at your desk or not, or use your webcam to translate occasional snapshots of your facial expressions to your avatar. You can also connect your Spotify and calendar to show you’re listening to music (and might be concentrating), reveal or hide details of your meeting, and decide whether people can ask to interrupt your or that you’re totally unavailable.

From there, you can communicate by audio, video, or text with any of your available co-workers. Guests can join conversations via the web and mobile too, though the team is working on a full-fledged app for phones and tablets. Tap on someone and you can instantly talk to them, though their mic stays muted until they respond. Alternatively, you can jump into Slack-esque channels for discussing specific topics or holding recurring meetings. And if you need some downtime, you can hang out in the watercooler or trivia game channel, or set a manual away message.

Pragli has put a remarkable amount of consideration into how the little office social cues about when to interrupt someone translate online, like if someone’s wearing headphones, in a deep convo already, or if they’re chilling in the microkitchen. It’s leagues better than having no idea what someone’s doing on the other side of Slack or what’s going on in a Zoom call. It’s a true virtual office without the clunky VR headset.

“Nothing we’ve tried has delivered the natural, water-cooler-style conversations that we get from Pragli” says Storj Labs VP of engineering JT Olio. “The ability to switch between ‘rooms’ with screen sharing, video, and voice in one app is great. It has really helped us improve transparency across teams. Plus, the avatars are quite charming as well.”

With Microsoft’s lack of social experience, Zoom consumed with its scaling challenges, and Slack doubling down on text as it prioritizes Zoom integration over its own visual communication features, there’s plenty of room for Pragli to flourish. Meanwhile, COVID-19 quarantines are turning the whole world towards remote work, and it’s likely to stick afterwards as companies deemphasize office space and hire more abroad.

The biggest challenge will be making such a broad product encompassing every communication medium and tons of new behaviors comprehensible enough to onboard whole teams. How do you build a product that doesn’t feel distracting like Slack but where people can still have the spontaneous conversations that are so important to companies innovating?” Safreno asks. The Pragli founders are also debating how to encompass mobile without making people feel like the office stalks them after hours.

“Long-term, [Pragli] should be better than being in the office because you don’t actually have to walk around looking for [co-workers], and you get to decide how you’re presented” Safreno concludes. “We won’t quit because we want to work remotely for the rest of our lives.”


By Josh Constine

Zoom will enable waiting rooms by default to stop Zoombombing

Zoom is making some drastic changes to prevent rampant abuse as trolls attack publicly-shared video calls. Starting April 5th, it will require passwords to enter calls via Meeting ID, since these may be guessed or reused. Meanwhile, it will change virtual waiting rooms to be on by default so hosts have to manually admit attendees.

The changes could prevent “Zoombombing”, a term I coined two weeks ago to describe malicious actors entering Zoom calls and disrupting them by screensharing offensive imagery. New Zoombombing tactics have since emerged, like spamming the chat thread with terrible GIFs, using virtual backgrounds to spread hateful messages, or just screaming profanities and slurs. Anonymous forums have now become breeding grounds for organized trolling efforts to raid calls.

Just imagine the most frightened look on all these people’s faces. That’s what happened when Zoombombers attacked the call.

The FBI has issued a warning about the Zoombombing problem after children’s online classes, alcoholics anonymous meetings, and private business calls were invaded by trolls. Security researchers have revealed many ways that attackers can infiltrate a call.

The problems stem from Zoom being designed for trusted enterprise use cases rather than cocktail hours, yoga classes, roundtable discussions, and classes. But with Zoom struggling to scale its infrastructure as its daily user count has shot up from 10 million to 200 million over the past month due to coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, it’s found itself caught off guard.

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan apologized for the security failures this week and vowed changes. But at the time, the company merely said it would default to making screensharing host-only and keeping waiting rooms on for its K-12 education users. Clearly it determined that wasn’t sufficient, so now waiting rooms are on by default for everyone.

Zoom communicated the changes to users via an email sent this afternoon that explains “we’ve chosen to enable passwords on your meetings and turn on Waiting Rooms by default as additional security enhancements to protect your privacy.”

The company also explained that “For meetings scheduled moving forward, the meeting password can be found in the invitation. For instant meetings, the password will be displayed in the Zoom client. The password can also be found in the meeting join URL.” Some other precautions users can take include disabling file transfer, screensharing, or rejoining by removed attendees.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 18: Zoom founder Eric Yuan reacts at the Nasdaq opening bell ceremony on April 18, 2019 in New York City. The video-conferencing software company announced it’s IPO priced at $36 per share, at an estimated value of $9.2 billion. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

The shift could cause some hassle for users. Hosts will be distracted by having to approve attendees out of the waiting room while they’re trying to lead calls. Zoom recommends users resend invites with passwords attached for Meeting ID-based calls scheduled for after April 5th. Scrambling to find passwords could make people late to calls.

But that’s a reasonable price to pay to keep people from being scarred by Zoombombing attacks. The rash of trolling threatened to sour many people’s early experiences with the video chat platform just as it’s been having its breakout moment. A single call marred by disturbing pornography can leave a stronger impression than 100 peaceful ones with friends and colleagues. The old settings made sense when it was merely an enterprise product, but it needed to embrace its own change of identity as it becomes a fundamental utility for everyone.

Technologists will need to grow better at anticipating worst-case scenarios as their products go mainstream and are adapted to new use cases. Assuming everyone will have the best intentions ignores the reality of human nature. There’s always someone looking to generate a profit, score power, or cause chaos from even the smallest opportunity. Building development teams that include skeptics and realists, rather than just visionary idealists, could keep ensure products get safeguarded from abuse before rather than after a scandal occurs.


By Josh Constine

Kaizo raises $3M for its AI-based tools to improve customer service support teams

CRM has for years been primarily a story of software to manage customer contacts, data to help agents do their jobs, and tools to manage incoming requests and outreach strategies. Now to add to that we’re starting to see a new theme: apps to help agents track how they work and to work better.

Today comes the latest startup in that category, a Dutch company called Kaizo, which uses AI and gamification to provide feedback on agents’ work, tips on what to do differently, and tools to set and work to goals — all of which can be used remotely, in the cloud. Today, it is announcing $3 million in a seed round of funding co-led by Gradient — Google’s AI venture fund — and French VC Partech. 

And along with the seed round, Kaizo (which rebranded last week from its former name, Ticketless) is announcing that Christoph Auer-Welsbach, a former partner at IBM Ventures, is joining the company as a co-founder, alongside founder Dominik Blattner. 

Although this is just a seed round, it’s coming after a period of strong growth for the company. Kaizo has already 500 companies including Truecaller, SimpleSurance, Miro, CreditRepairCloud, Justpark, Festicket and Nmbrs are using its software, covering “thousands” of customer support agents, which use a mixture of free and paid tools that integrate with established CRM software from the likes of Salesforce, Zendesk and more.

Customer service, and the idea of gamifying it to motivate employees, might feel like the last thing on people’s minds at the moment, but it is actually timely and relevant to our current state in responding to and living with the coronavirus.

People are spending much more time at home, and are turning to the internet and remote services to get what they need, and in many cases are finding that their best-laid plans are now in freefall. Both of these are driving a lot of traffic to sites and primarily customer support centers, which are getting overwhelmed with people reaching out for help.

And that’s before you consider how customer support teams might be impacted by coronavirus and the many mandates we’ve had to stay away from work, and the stresses they may be under.

“In our current social climate, customer support is an integral part of a company’s stability and growth that has embraced remote work to meet the demands of a globalized customer-base,” said Dominik Blattner, founder of Kaizo, in a statement. “With the rise of support teams utilizing a digital workplace, providing standards to measure an agent’s performance has never been more important. KPIs provide these standards, quantifying the success, achievement and contribution of each team member.”

On a more general level, Kaizo is also changing the conversation around how to improve one’s productivity. There has been a larger push for “quantified self” platforms, which has very much played out both in workplaces and in our personal lives, but a lot of services to track performance have focused on both managers and employees leaning in with a lot of input. That means if they don’t set aside the time to do that, the platforms never quite work the way they should.

This is where the AI element of Kaizo plays a key role, by taking on the need to proactively report into a system.

“This is how we’re distinct,” Auer-Welsbach said in an interview. “Normally KPIs are top-down. They are about people setting goals and then reporting they’ve done something. This is a bottom-up approach. We’re not trying to change employees’ behaviour. We plug into whatever environment they are using, and then our tool monitors. The employee doesn’t have to report or measure anything. We track clicks on the CRM, ticketing, and more, and we analyse all that.” He notes that Kaizo is looking at up to 50 datapoints in its analysis.

“We’re excited about Kaizo’s novel approach to applying AI to existing ticket data from platforms like Zendesk and Salesforce to optimize the customer support workflow,” said Darian Shirazi, General Partner at Gradient Ventures, in a statement. “Using machine learning, Kaizo understands which behaviors in customer service tickets lead to better outcomes for customers and then guides agents to replicate that using ongoing game mechanics. Customer support and service platforms today are failing to leverage data in the right way to make the life of agents easier and more effective. The demand Kaizo has seen since they launched on the Zendesk Marketplace shows agents have been waiting for such a solution for some time.”

Kaizo is not the only startup to have identified the area of building new services to improve the performance of customer support teams. Assembled earlier this month also raised $3.1 million led by Stripe for what it describes as the “operating system” for customer support.


By Ingrid Lunden

Control each other’s apps with new screensharing tool Screen

It’s like Google Docs for everything. Screen is a free interactive multiplayer screensharing app that gives everyone a cursor so they can navigate, draw on, and even code within the apps of their co-workers while voice or video chatting. Screen makes it easy and fun to co-design content, pair program, code review or debug together, or get feedback from a teacher.

Jahanzeb Sherwani sold his last screensharing tool ScreenHero to Slack, but it never performed as well crammed inside the messaging app. Five years later, he’s accelerated the launch of Screen to today and made it free to help all the teams stuck working from home amidst coronavirus shelter-in-place orders. 

Sherwani claims that Screen is “2x-5x faster than other screen sharing tools, and has between 30ms-50ms end-to-end latency. Most other screen sharing tools have between 100ms-150ms.”

For being built by just a two-person team, Screen has a remarkable breadth of features that are all responsive and intuitive.

A few things you can do with Screen:

  • Share your screen from desktop on Mac, Windows and Linux while chatting over audio or video calling in a little overlaid window, or join a call and watch from your browser or mobile
  • Use your cursor on someone else’s shared screen so you can control or type anything just like it was your computer
  • Overlay drawing on the screenshare so you can annotate things like “this is misspelled” or “move this there”, with doodles fading away after a few second unless your hold down your mouse or turn on caps lock
  • Post ephemeral text comments so you can collaborate even if you have to be quiet
  • Launch Screen meetings from Slack and schedule them Google Calendar integration
  • Share invite links with anyone with no need to log in or be at the same company, just be careful who you let control your Screen

Normally Screen is free for joining meetings, $10 per month to host them, and $20 per person per month for enterprise teams. But Sherwani writes that for now it’s free to host too “so you can stay healthy & productive during the coronavirus outbreak.” If you can afford to pay, you should though as “We’re trying this as an experiment in the hope that the number of paid users is sufficient to pay for our running costs to help us stay break-even.”

Sherwani’s new creation could become an acquisition target for video call giants like Zoom, but he might not be so willing to sell this time around. Founded in 2013, Screenhero was incredibly powerful for its time, offering some of the collaboration tools now in Screen. But after it was acquired by Slack after raising just $1.8 million, Screenhero never got the integration it deserved.

“We finally shipped interactive screen sharing almost three years later, but it wasn’t as performant as Screenhero, and was eventually removed in 2019” Sherwani writes. “Given that it was used by a tiny fraction of Slack’s user-base, and had a high maintenance cost, this was the correct decision for Slack.” Still, he explains why a company like Screen is better off independent. “Embedding one complex piece of software in another imposes a lot more constraints, which makes it more expensive to build. It’s far easier to have a standalone app that just does one thing well.”

Screen actually does a lot of things well. I tried it with my wife, and the low latency and extensive flexibility made it downright delightful to try co-writing this article. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of social use cases springing up if teens get ahold of Screen. The whole concept of screensharing is getting popularized by apps like Squad and Instagram’s new Co-Watching feature that launched today.

The new Co-Watching feature is like screensharing just for Instagram

Eventually, Screen wants to launch a virtual office feature so you can just instantly pull co-workers into meetings. That could make it feel a lot more like collaborating in the same room with someone, where you can start a conversation at any time. Screen could also democratize the remote work landscape by shifting meetings from top-down broadcasts by managers to jam sessions where everyone has a say.

Sherwani concludes, “When working together, everyone needs to have a seat at the table”.


By Josh Constine