FintechOS nabs $60M for a low-code approach to modernizing legacy banking and insurance services

“Challenger” startups in banking and insurance have upended their industries, and picked up significant business, by building more customer-friendly tools and services — more personalized, easier to access, and usually competitively priced — than those typically provided their bigger, incumbent rivals. Now, a startup out of Romania that is building tools to help the incumbents respond with better services of their own is announcing a significant round of funding as its business grows.

FintechOS, which has built a low-code platform aimed at larger (older) banking and insurance companies to help them build new services and analytics on top of and around their existing infrastructure, has raised €51 million ($61.5 million at today’s rates, but $60 million at the time of the deal closing) in a Series B round of funding.

FintechOS’s opportunity has been to target wave of incumbents in the insurance and banking industries that have been slowly watching as newer players like Lemonade (in insurance) and a huge plethora of challenger banks (Revolut, N26, Monzo and many others) are swooping in and picking up customers, especially among younger demographics, while they have been unable to respond mostly because their infrastructure is too old and big. Turning a huge ship around, as we have seen, is no small task — a situation that has become only more apparent in the last year of pandemic living and the big shift to digital interactions that resulted from it.

“When we launched FintechOS in 2017, we could already see existing solutions to digital transformation would struggle to deliver tangible results. By contrast, our unique approach has quickly inspired a sea-change in how financial institutions address digitization and engage with their customers,” said Teodor Blidarus, co-founder and CEO at FintechOS, in a statement. “Events over the last year have only increased pressure on our industry to evolve and as a result we’re seeing growing demand for our powerful platforms. Our latest round of funding will help us grow at the pace needed to improve outcomes for financial institutions and their customers globally.”

(It is not the only one. Others out of Europe in the space of bringing new tools to incumbent banks to help them make more modern and competitive products include 10x, Thought Machine, Temenos, Mambu and many more.)

The Series B round of funding is being led by Draper-Esprit, with Earlybird, Gapminder Ventures, Launchub, and OTB Ventures (which all participated in its Series A in December 2019) also participating. There are other backers in the round that are not being disclosed at this time, the startup added. FintechOS is also not disclosing its valuation. The company, based out of Bucharest, has raised just under $80 million to date.

FintechOS is active today in the UK and Europe — where it has been growing at a CAGR of 200% and says its services touch “millions” of people, with some of its key customers including the likes of banking giants Societe Generale and IdeaBank and international insurance brokers Howden. The plan will be to continue investing in those markets, as well as expanding internationally.

And it will be adding in more services. Today, the banking platform is designed to help banks launch more retail services for consumers and small and medium business customers, and for insurance companies to build new health, life and general insurance products (there are a lot of synergies in how insurance and financial services companies have been built over the years, and so it’s a natural couplet when it comes to building tools for those industries).

In the financial sector, FintechOS lets banks build in new digital onboarding flows, credit cards and loan products, savings and mortgage products. Insurance products include new approaches to generating and handling quotes, customer onboarding and management and claims automation — which may well bring FintechOS into closer contact and collaboration with the most successful startup to come out of its home country to date, the RPA juggernaut UiPath. In all cases, it helps stitch together data from a bank’s own systems with more modern tooling, and to link that up with yet more modern tools to help process that data more easily.

This is “low code” but it typically means that the company needs to work with third parties to enable all of this. Partners include the likes of integrators and other global services technicians, such as Microsoft, Deloitte, CapGemini, KPMG, and so on. (And the founders of the startup themselves come from consulting backgrounds so they well understand the role these companies play in the process of bringing technology into big businesses.)

FintechOS is tapping into a couple of very big trends that have arguably been the biggest in the financial and related insurance industries.

The first of these is the fact that core services around things like credit/loans, current deposits and savings are not just very complex to build but actually have largely become commoditized — similar to digital payments — and so packaging them up and turning them into services that can be integrated by way of an API makes them more easily accessed without the heavy lifting needed to build them from scratch. This lets companies focus instead on customer service or building more interesting tools around those basic services to customise them (for example AI based personalization). Disintermediating basic functions from the services built around them is arguably a bigger trend but it has been especially prevalent in enterprise, which has long been a slow-moving space when it comes to innovation in the back-end, and the front-end.

The second of these is the big swing towards using no-code and low-code tools to empower more people within organizations to get stuck in when they can see something not working as efficiently as it could, and building the workflows themselves to improve that. This also applies to trying out and testing new products — again something that typically has not been done in financial and insurance services but can now be possible with low-code and no-code tools.

“Not only is our technology helping financial institutions become customer centric, but it’s also helping them provide products and services to more people and businesses,” said Sergiu Negut, the other co-founder who is FintechOS’s CFO and COO, said in a separate statement. “With so many markets still underserved, the ability to tailor offerings to a segment of one offers the opportunity to increase financial inclusion and adheres to our ideal that easy access to financial services is essential. We’re delighted to be working with investors who share our views on how fintech should be transforming the financial services industry.”

Notably, Draper Esprit also has backed Thought Machine, another big player in the world of fintech that is taking some of the learnings and models that have helped new entrants disrupt incumbents, and is packaging them up as services for incumbents, too. It takes a different approach to doing this, not using low-code but smart contracts, which could be one reason why the VC doesn’t see the investments as conflict of interest. They are also tackling an enormous market, and so at least for now there is room for them, and many others in the space, such as 10x, Temenos, Mambu, Rapyd and many others.

“When we met Teo and Sergiu, we were immediately convinced of their vision: a data led, end-to-end platform, facilitated with a low-code/no-code infrastructure,” Vinoth Jayakumar, partner at Draper Esprit, said in a statement. “Incumbent financial services firms have cost-to-income ratios up to 90%, so we see a huge and increasing need for infrastructure software that allows digitisation at speed, ease and lower cost. Draper Esprit builds enduring partnerships; with the team at FintechOS we hope to build an enduring fintech company that will dramatically change financial services experiences for people all over the world.”

 

 


By Ingrid Lunden

IBM acquires Italy’s MyInvenio to integrate process mining directly into its suite of automation tools

Automation has become a big theme in enterprise IT, with organizations using RPA, no-code and low-code tools, and other  technology to speed up work and bring more insights and analytics into how they do things every day, and today IBM is announcing an acquisition as it hopes to take on a bigger role in providing those automation services. The IT giant has acquired MyInvenio, an Italian startup that builds and operates process mining software.

Process mining is the part of the automation stack that tracks data produced by a company’s software, as well as how the software works, in order to provide guidance on what a company could and should do to improve it. In the case of myInvenio, the company’s approach involves making a “digital twin” of an organization to help track and optimize processes. IBM is interested in how myInvenio’s tools are able to monitor data in areas like sales, procurement, production and accounting to help organizations identify what might be better served with more automation, which it can in turn run using RPA or other tools as needed.

Terms of the deal are not being disclosed. It is not clear if myInvenio had any outside investors (we’ve asked and are awaiting a response). This is the second acquisition IBM has made out of Italy. (The first was in 2014, a company called CrossIdeas that now forms part of the company’s security business.)

IBM and myInvenio are not exactly strangers: the two inked a deal as recently as November 2020 to integrate the Italian startup’s technology into IBM’s bigger automation services business globally.

Dinesh Nirmal, GM of IBM Automation, said in an interview that the reason IBM acquired the company was two-fold. First, it lets IBM integrate the technology more closely into the company’s Cloud Pak for Business Automation, which sits on and is powered by Red Hat OpenShift and has other automation capabilities already embedded within it, specifically robotic process automation (RPA), document processing, workflows and decisions.

Second and perhaps more importantly, it will mean that IBM will not have to tussle for priority for its customers in competition with other solution partners that myInvenio already had. IBM will be the sole provider.

“Partnerships are great but in a partnership you also have the option to partner with others, and when it comes to priority who decides?” he said. “From the customer perspective, will they will work just on our deal, or others first? Now, our customers will get the end result of this… We can bring a single solution to an end user or an enterprise, saying, ‘look you have document processing, RPA, workflow, mining. That is the beauty of this and what customers will see.”

He said that IBM currently serves customers across a range of verticals including financial, insurance, healthcare and manufacturing with its automation products.

Notably, this is not the first acquisition that IBM has made to build out this stack. Last year, it acquired WDG to expand into robotic process automation.

And interestingly, it’s not even the only partnership that IBM has had in process mining. Just earlier this month, it announced a deal with one of the bigger names in the field, Celonis, a German startup valued at $2.5 billion in 2019.

Ironically, at the time, my colleague Ron wondered aloud why IBM wasn’t just buying Celonis outright in that deal. It’s hard to speculate if price was one reason. Remember: we don’t know the terms of this acquisition, but given myInvenio was off the fundraising radar, chances are it’s possibly a little less than Celonis’s pricetag.

We’ve asked and IBM has confirmed that it will continue to work with Celonis alongside now offering its own native process mining tools.

“In keeping with IBM’s open approach and $1 billion investment in ecosystem, [Global Business Services, IBM’s enterprise services division] works with a broad range of technologies based on client and market demand, including IBM AI and Automation software,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “Celonis focuses on execution management which supports GBS’ transformation of clients’ business processes through intelligent workflows across industries and domains. Specifically, Celonis has deep connectivity into enterprise systems such as Salesforce, SAP, Workday or ServiceNow, so the Celonis EMS platform helps GBS accelerate clients’ transformations and BPO engagements with these ERP platforms.”

Indeed, at the end of the day, companies that offer services, especially suites of services, are working in environments where they have to be open to customers using their own technology, or bringing in something else.

There may have been another force pushing IBM to bring more of this technology in-house, and that’s wider competitive climate. Earlier this year, SAP acquired another European startup in the process mining space, Signavio, in a deal reportedly worth about $1.2 billion. As more of these companies get snapped up by would-be IBM rivals, and those left standing are working with a plethora of other parties, maybe it was high time for IBM to make sure it had its own horse in the race.

“Through IBM’s planned acquisition of myInvenio, we are revolutionizing the way companies manage their process operations,” said Massimiliano Delsante, CEO, myInvenio, who will be staying on with the deal. “myInvenio’s unique capability to automatically analyze processes and create simulations — what we call a ‘Digital Twin of an Organization’ —  is joining with IBM’s AI-powered automation capabilities to better manage process execution. Together we will offer a comprehensive solution for digital process transformation and automation to help enterprises continuously transform insights into action.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Berlin’s Bryter raises $66M to take its no-code tools for enterprises to the US

No-code startups continue to see a lot of traction among enterprises, where employees — strictly speaking, non-technical, but still using software every day — are getting hands-on and building apps to take on some of the more repetitive aspects of their jobs, the so-called “citizen coders” of the working world.

And in one of the latest developments, a Bryter — an AI-based no-code startup that has built a platforms used by some 100 global enterprises to date across some 2,000 business applications and workflows — is announcing a new round of funding to double down on that opportunity. The Berlin-based company has closed a Series B of $66 million, money that it will be investing into its platform and expanding in the U.S. out of a New York office it opened last year. The funding comes on the heels of seeing a lot of demand for its tools, CEO and co-founder Michael Grupp said in an interview.

“It was a great year for low-code and no-code platforms,” said Grupp, who co-founded the company with Micha-Manuel Bues and Michael Hübl. “What everyone has realized is that most people don’t actually care about the tech. They only care about the use cases. They want to get things done.” Customers using the service include the likes of McDonald’s, Telefónica, and PwC, KPMG and Deloitte in Europe, as well as banks, healthcare and industrial enterprises.

Tiger Global is leading this round, with previous backers Accel, Dawn Capital, Notion Capital and Cavalry Ventures all also participating, along with a number of individual backers (they include Amit Agharwal, CPO of DataDog; Lars Björk, former CEO of Qlik; Ulf Zetterberg, founder and CEO of Seal Software; and former ServiceNow global SVP James Fitzgerald). The valuation is not being disclosed; Bryter has raised around $90 million to date.

Accel and Dawn co-led Bryter’s Series A of $16 million less than a year ago, in June 2020, a rapid funding pace that underscores both interest in the no-code/low-code space — Bryter’s enterprise customer base has doubled from 50 since then — and the fact that startups in it are striking while the iron is hot.

Bryter’s not the only one: Airtable, Genesis, Rows, Creatio, and Ushur are among the many startups building ‘hands-on tech creation for non-techie people’ that have raised money in the last several months.

Automation has been the bigger trend that has propelled a lot of this activity. Knowledge workers today spend most of their time these days in apps — a state of affairs that pre-dates the Covid-19 pandemic, but has definitely been furthered throughout it. While some of that work still requires manual involvement and evaluation from those workers, software has automated large swathes of those jobs.

RPA — robotic process automation, where companies like UiPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism have taken a big lead — has accounted for a significant chunk of that activity, especially when it comes to reading forms and lots of data entry. But there remains a lot of other transactions and activities within specific apps where RPA is typically not used (not yet at least!). And this is where non-tech workers are finding that no-code tools like Bryter, which use artificial intelligence to deliver more personalised, yet scalable, automation, can play a very useful role.

“We sit on top of RPA in many cases,” said Grupp.

The company says that business functions where its platform has been implemented include compliance, legal, tax, privacy and security, procurement, administration, and HR, and the kinds of features that are being built include virtual assistants, chatbots, interactive self-service tools, and more.

These don’t replace people as such but cut down the time they need to spend in specific tasks to process and handle information within them, and could in theory also be used to build tools for customers to interact with services more easily, cutting down on the amount of time that agents are getting details and handling engagements.

That scalability, and the rapid customer up-take from a pool of users that extends beyond tech early-adopters, are part of what attracted the funding.

“Bryter has all the characteristics of a top-tier software company: high quality product that solves a real customer pain point, a large market opportunity and a world-class founding team,” said John Curtius, a partner at Tiger Global, in a statement. “The feedback from Bryter’s customers was resoundingly positive in our research, and we are excited to see the company reach new heights over the coming years.”

“Bryter has seen explosive growth over the last year, signing landmark customers across a large number of sectors and use cases. This does not come as a surprise. In the pandemic-affected world, digitalisation is no longer a nice to have, it is an imperative,” added Evgenia Plotnikova, a partner at Dawn Capital.


By Ingrid Lunden

Feedzai raises $200M at a $1B+ valuation for AI tools to fight financial fraud

On the heels of Jumio announcing a $150 million injection this week to continue building out its AI-based ID verification and anti-money laundering platform, another startup in the space is levelling up. Feedzai, which provides banks, others in the financial sector, and any company managing payments online with AI tools to spot and fight fraud — its cornerstone service involves super quick (3 millisecond) checks happening in the background while transactions are being made — has announced a Series D of $200 million. It said that the new financing is being made at a valuation of over $1 billion.

The round is being led by KKR, with Sapphire Ventures and strategic backer Citi Ventures — both past investors — also participating. Feedzai said it will be using the funds for further R&D and product development, to expand into more markets outside the U.S. — it was originally founded in Portugal but now is based out of San Mateo — and towards business development, specifically via partnerships to integrate and sell its tools.

One of those partners looks to be Citi itself:

“Citi is committed to advancing global payments anchored on transparency, efficiency, and control, and our partnership with Feedzai is allowing us to provide customers with technology that seamlessly balances agility and security,” said Manish Kohli, Global Head of Payments and Receivables, with Citi’s Treasury and Trade Solutions, in a statement.

The funding is coming at a time when the need for fraud protection for those managing transactions online has reached a high watermark, leading to a rush of customers for companies in the field.

Feezai says that its customers include 4 of the 5 largest banks in North America, 80% of the world’s Fortune 500 companies, 154 million individual and business taxpayers in the U.S., and has processed $9 billion in online transactions for 2 of the world’s most valuable athletic brands. In total its reach covers some 800 million customers of businesses that use its services.

In addition to Citibank, its customers include Fiserv, Santander, SoFi, and Standard Chartered’s Mox.

The round comes nearly four years after Feedzai raised its Series C, a $50 million round led by an unnamed investor and with an undisclosed valuation. Sapphire also participated in that round.

While money laundering, fraud and other kinds of illicit financial activity were already problems then, in the interim, the problem has only compounded, not least because of how much activity has shifted online, accelerating especially in the last year of pandemic-driven lockdowns. That’s been exacerbated also by a general rise in cybercrime — of which financial fraud remains the biggest component and motivator.

Within that bigger trend, solutions based on artificial intelligence have really emerged as critical to the task of identifying and fighting those illicit activities. Not only is that because AI solutions are able to make calculations and take actions and simply process more than non-AI based tools, or humans for that matter, but they are then able to go head to head with much of the fraud taking place, which itself is being built out on AI-based platforms and requires more sophistication to identify and combat.

For banking customers, Feedzai’s approach has been disruptive in part because of how it has conceived of the problem: it has built solutions that can be used across different scenarios, making them more powerful since the AI system is subsequently “learning” from more data. This is in contrast to how many financial service providers had conceived and tackled the issue in the past.

“Until now banks have used solutions based on verticals,” Nuno Sebastiao, co-founder and CEO of Feedzai, said in the past to TechCrunc. “The fraud solution you have for an ATM wouldn’t be the same fraud solution you would use for online banking which wouldn’t be the same fraud solution would have for a voice call center.” As these companies have refreshed their systems, many have taken a more agnostic approach like the kind the Feedzai has built.

The scale of the issue is clear, and unfortunately also something many of us have experienced first-hand. Feedzai says its data indicates that the last quarter of 2020 that show consumers saw a 650% increase in account takeover scams, a 600% in impersonation scams, and a 250% increase in online banking fraud attacks versus the first quarter of 2020.  (Those periods are, essentially, before pandemic and during pandemic comparisons.)

“The past 12 months have accelerated the world’s dependency on electronic financial services – from online banking to mobile payments, and in turn have increased fraud and money laundering activity. Our services are in more demand than ever,” said Sebastiao in a statement today.

Indeed, yesterday, when I covered Jumio’s $150 million round, I said I wouldn’t consider its funding to be an outlier (even though Jumio made clear it was the largest funding to date in its space): the fast follow from Feedzai, with an even higher amount of financing, really does underscore the trend at the moment.

In addition to these two, one of Feedzai’s biggest competitors, Kount, was acquired by credit ratings giant Equifax earlier this year for $640 million to move deeper into the space. (And related to that field, in the area of identity management, which goes hand-in-hand with tools for laundering and fraud, Okta acquired Auth0 for $6.5 billion.)

Other big rounds for startups in the wider space have included included ForgeRock ($96 million round), Onfido ($100 million), Payfone ($100 million), ComplyAdvantage ($50 million), Ripjar ($36.8 million) Truework ($30 million), Zeotap ($18 million) and Persona ($17.5 million).

KKR’s involvement in this round is notable as another example of a private equity firm getting in earlier with venture rounds with fast-scaling startups, similar to Great Hill’s investment in Jumio yesterday and a number of other examples. The firm says it’s making this investment out of its Next Generation Technology Growth Fund II, which is focused on making growth equity investment opportunities in the technology space.

“Feedzai offers a powerful solution to one of the biggest challenges we are facing today: financial crime in the digital age. Global commerce depends on future-proof technologies capable of dealing with a rapidly evolving threat landscape. At the same time, consumers rightfully demand a great customer experience, in addition to strong security layers when using banking or payments services,” said Stephen Shanley, Managing Director at KKR, in a statement

“We believe Feedzai’s platform uniquely meets these expectations and more, and we are looking forward to working with Nuno and the rest of the team to expand their offering even further,” added Spencer Chavez, Principal at KKR.


By Ingrid Lunden

Saleor scores $2.5M seed round for its ‘headless’ e-commerce platform

Saleor, a Poland and U.S.-based startup that offers a “headless” e-commerce platform to make it easier for developers to build better online shopping experiences, has raised $2.5 million in seed funding.

The round is led by Berlin’s Cherry Ventures, with participation from various angels. They include Guillermo Rauch (Vercel CEO and inventor of Next.js), Chris Schagen (former CMO of Contentful) and Kevin Mahaffey (co-founder of Lookout).

Saleor says the injection of capital will be invested in further developing Saleor‘s headless e-commerce platform, including a soon-to-launch cloud product and GraphQL API for front-end engineers.

Founded in 2020 but with a history going back to 2013, years before founders Mirek Mencel and Patryk Zawadzki spun out the product separate from their agency, Saleor is described as an “API-first” e-commerce platform that takes a “headless” approach. The idea is that the platform does the back-end heavy lifting so that developers can focus on the front end where most of the value is created for users.

“Saleor was born of necessity when our agency work at Mirumee Software required more modular, flexible and scalable e-commerce software,” Saleor co-founder Mirek Mencel recalls. “Most solutions for bigger brands came with proprietary baggage like vendor lock-in, slow adoption of new technologies and commercial certification programs. On the open-source side, we didn’t enjoy Magento’s developer experience and felt alternatives weren’t viable at scale”.

And so Saleor was conceived as an open-source platform focused on “technical excellence and quality” that could deliver greater scalability and extensibility than existing proprietary software. By 2016, the product had grown from something Mencel and Zawadzki’s agency used internally into a platform used by developers around the world.

“We could have stopped there, but saw brands pressing for more revolutionary front-end experiences,” Mencel says. “Decoupling Saleor’s core from its presentation layer was the obvious path to revolutionary front-ends. As difficult as it was, we tore down what was a rather good open-source e-commerce platform and rebuilt it API-first”.

Beyond their early headless conviction, the pair also came to the realisation that GraphQL delivered “more power, precision and developer happiness” than REST. Reasoning that most developers prefer “a few things done superbly to many things done well,” they committed exclusively to Saleor’s GraphQL API. “We have never looked back,” says Mencel.

In 2018, the original six-person team shipped Saleor 2.0. Now with a headcount of 20, Mencel says Saleor has a simple vision of developer-first commerce: open-source, GraphQL and “fair-priced” cloud — a vision that Cherry Ventures has clearly bought into.

“We are currently witnessing a paradigm shift with developers switching to headless commerce solutions, allowing more flexible, differentiated shopping experiences,” says Filip Dames, founding partner of Cherry. “Mirek, Patryk, and their team are at the forefront of this development and will enable innovative merchants to build state-of-the-art shopping experiences that scale across all consumer touch points and devices”.

“We decided to pursue venture backing as a way to increase the Saleor core team size and accelerate buildout of Saleor Cloud, which we’ll launch this year,” adds Mencel.


By Steve O’Hear

Genesis raises $45M to expand its fintech-focussed low-code platform to more verticals

Low-code and no-code tools have been a huge hit with enterprises keen to give their operations more of a tech boost, but often lack the resources to handle more complex integrations. Today, one of the startups that has been building low-code finance tools is announcing funding to tap into that trend and expand its business.

Genesis — which has to date primarily worked with financial services companies, giving non-technical employees the tools to create ways to monitor and manage real-time risk, high-frequency trades and other activities — has picked up $45 million. It plans to use to bring the tools it has already built to a wider set of verticals that have some of the same needs to manage risk, compliance, and other factors as finance — healthcare and manufacturing are two examples — as well as to continue building more into the stack. 

This Series B includes a mix of financial investors along with strategic backers that speak to who already integrates with Genesis’ tools on their own platforms.

Led by Accel, it also includes participation from new backers GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Salesforce Ventures, in addition to existing investors Citi, Illuminate Financial and Tribeca Venture Partners, who also invested in this round. To give you an idea of who it works with, Citi, along with ING, London Clearing House, and XP Investments, are some of Genesis customers.

Originally conceived in 2012 in Brazil by a pair of British co-founders — Stephen Murphy (CEO) and James Harrison (CTO), who cut their teeth in the world of investment banking — Genesis had raised less than $5 million before this round, mostly bootstrapping its business and leaning on Murphy and Harrison’s existing relationships in the world of finance to grow its customer base.

Today, Murphy lives in and leads the business from Miami — where he moved from New York just as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to gain steam last year — while James Harrison (CTO) leads part of the team based out of the UK.

As you might imagine with so little funding before now for a company going on nine years old, Genesis was doing fine financially before this Series B, so the plan is to use the funding specifically to grow faster than it could have on its own steam. The startup is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

“We were not really fixated on valuation,” said Murphy in an interview, who said the funding came about after a number of VCs had approached the startup. “The most important thing is the future opportunity and where we could take the company with additional funding… this will help us hyper scale up.” He did note that the term sheets contained “some amazing numbers and multiples,” given the current interest in no-code and low-code technology.

Indeed, the vogue for no-code and low-code tech — other well-funded names in the crowded space include startups like Zapier, Airtable, Rows, Gyana, Bryter, Ushur, Creatio, and EasySend, as well as significant launches from Google and Microsoft and other bigger players — is coming out of two trends colliding.

On one side, we’ve well and truly entered an era in enterprise technology — with the same trend playing out in consumer tech, too — where smart developers are taking sophisticated and complex services and putting “wrappers” around them by way of APIs and simpler (low- or no-code) interfaces, so that those sophisticated tools can in turn be integrated and implemented in more places. This saves needing to build or integrate that complexity from scratch and expands access to the processes within those wrappers.

On the other side, the thirst for tech knowledge has become well and truly mainstream and as a result getting far more democratized. Working in a variety of applications, using different digital tools and devices, and seeing the fruits of tech pay off are all second nature to today’s working world — whether or not you are a technologist. So it’s no surprise to see more proactive, non-technical people looking for more ways to get their hands on these tools themselves.

“You now have a whole citizen developer world, for example business analysts who understand the solution you want but might not know how to get there,” Murphy said. “We play to seasoned developers first but the investment will help us put more low code and no code tools into place to widen the tools out to them.”

Starting out in finance made sense not just because that was where the two founders had previously worked, but also because of the history of how different software tools were already being used. Specifically, he noted that the ubiquity of microservices — which themselves are collections of services as apps — laid the groundwork for more low-code. “We saw that if we could build a low-code entry point to microservices, that would be powerful.”

On top of that, investment banks, he said, have a history of wanting to build things themselves to tailor to their specific needs. “Buying off the shelf means you are at the mercy of the vendor,” he said. These factors made financial services companies very receptive to what Genesis was offering.

While a lot of the no/low-code players are coming at the concept with specific verticals in mind — no surprise, since different verticals have very specific use cases and needs — so what’s interesting with Genesis is how the company is leveraging what it already knows about finance, and then looking at other industries that have similar demands, structures and rules.

Murphy said that Genesis will stay “very focused on financial markets for 2021” but that it’s identified a number of other verticals similar to it, and is actually already seeing some inbound interest from them.

“A number of people have already approached us from the world of healthcare,” he said, pointing out that these organizations, like financial services, face challenges around how to audit data and regulations around performing transactions. Manufacturing, meanwhile, has some parallels around the area of complex event processing similar to equity algorithmic trading, he said. (In short, this relates to how external events might trigger more transactions, not unlike how external factors affect manufacturing operations.)

The trend is one that analysts forecast will only grow in the coming years: Gartner, for example, says that by 2024, low-code platforms will account for no less than 65% of all app development activity.

“Low-code promises business users the autonomy to make their own technology usage and purchase decisions while enabling them to actually build their own applications without having to rely on IT,” said Andrei Brasoveanu, a partner at Accel, said n a statement. “By bringing one of the most transformative innovations in software development to financial services, Steve and the Genesis team are taking on a huge market of legacy vendors – and winning too – while delivering on the promise of low-code. The confidence they’ve gained from serving such large institutions is proof that there’s a real and urgent need for a purpose-built low-code solution for financial markets. We’re excited to partner with Genesis and support them in delivering this across the world.” Brasoveanu is joining the startup’s board with this round.


By Ingrid Lunden

Rows, formerly dashdash, raises $16M to build and populate web apps using only spreadsheet skills

Spreadsheet software — led by products like Microsoft’s Excel, Google’s Sheets and Apple’s Numbers — continues to be one of the most-used categories of business apps, with Excel alone clocking up more than a billion users just on its Android version. Now, a startup called Rows that’s built on that ubiquity, with a low-code platform that lets people populate and analyze web apps using just spreadsheet interfaces, is announcing funding and launching a freemium open beta of its expanded service.

The Berlin-based startup — which rebranded from dashdash at the end of last year — closed a Series B round of $16 million, money that it is using to continue investing in its platform as well as in sales and marketing.

The round was led by Lakestar, with past investors Accel (which led its $8 million Series A in 2018) and Cherry Ventures also participating. Christian Reber has also invested in this round. Reber knows a thing or two about software disrupting legacy products — he is the co-founder and CEO of presentation software startup Pitch and the former CEO and founder of Microsoft-acquired Wunderlist — and notably he is joining Rows’ Advisory Board along with the investment.

A little detail about this Series B: CEO Humberto Ayres Pereira tells us that the round actually was quietly closed over a year ago, in January 2020 — just ahead of the world shutting down amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The startup chose to announce that round today to coincide with adding more features to its product and moving it into an open beta, he said.

That open beta is free in its most basic form — free is limited to 10 users or less and a minimal amount of integration usage. Paid tiers, which cover more team members and up to 100,000 integration tasks (which are measured by how many times a spreadsheet queries another service), start at $59 per month.

One strong sign of interest in this latest iteration of the software will be in the lasting popularity of spreadsheets. Another is Rows’ traction to date: in invite-only mode, it picked up 10,000 users, and hundreds of companies, as customers.

No-code and low-code software, which let people create and work with apps and other digital content without delving deep into the lines of code that underpin them, have continued to pick up traction in the market in the last several years.

The reason for this is straightforward: non-technical employees may not code, but they are getting increasingly adept at understanding how services function and what can be achieved within an app.

No-code and low-code platforms let them get more hands-on when it comes to customizing and creating the services that they need to use everyday to get their work done, without the time and effort it might take to get an engineer involved.

“People want to create their own tools,” said Ayres Pereira. “They want to understand and test and iterate.” He said that the majority of Rows’ users so far are based out of North America, and typical use cases include marketing and sales teams, as well as companies using Rows spreadsheets as a dynamic interface to manage logistics and other operations.

Stephen Nundy, the partner at Lakestar who led its investment, describes the army of users taking up no-code tools as “citizen developers.” 

Rows is precisely the kind of platform that plays into the low-code trend. For people who are already au fait with the kinds of tools that you find in spreadsheets — and something like Excel has hundreds of functions in it — it presents a way of leaning on those familiar functions to trigger integrations with other apps, and to subsequently use a spreadsheet created in Rows to both analyse data from other apps, as well as update them.

You might ask, why is it more useful, for example, to look at content from Twitter in Rows rather than Twitter itself? A Rows document might let a person search for a set of Tweets using a certain chain of keywords, and then organise those results based on parameters such as how many “likes” those Tweets received.

Or users responding to a call to action for a promotion on Instagram might then be cross referenced with a company’s existing database of customers, to analyze how those respondents overlap or present new leads.

There have been a number of other startups building tools that are providing similar no- and low-code approaches. Gyana is focusing more on data science, Tray.io provides a graphical interface to integrate how apps work together, Zapier and Notion also provide simple interfaces to integrate apps and APIs together, and Airtable has its own take on reinventing the spreadsheet interface. For now, Ayres Pereira sees these more as compatriots than competitors.

“Yes, we overlap with services like Zapier and Notion,” he said. “But I’d say we are friends. We’re all raising awareness about people being able to do more and not having to be stuck using old tools. It’s not a zero sum game for us.”

When we covered Rows’s Series A two years ago, the startup had built a platform to let people who are comfortable working with data in spreadsheets to use that interface to create and populate content in web apps. It had a lot of extensibility, but mainly geared at people still willing to do the work to create those links.

Two years on, while the spreadsheet has remained the anchor, the platform has grown. Ayres Pereira, who co-founded the company with Torben Schulz (both pictured above), said that there are some 50 new integrations now, including ways to analyse and update content on social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, CrunchBase, Salesforce, Slack, LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as some 200 new features in the platform itself.

It also has a number of templates available for people to guide them through simple tasks, such as looking up LinkedIn profiles or emails for a list of people; tracking social media counts and so on.

One of the most common details of spreadsheets, however, has yet to be built. The interface is still banked around rows and columns, with no graphical tools to visualize data in different ways such as pie charts or graphs as you might have in a typical spreadsheet program.

It’s for this reason that Rows has yet to exit beta. The feature is one requested a lot, Pereira said, describing it as “the final frontier.” When Rows is ready to ship with that functionality, likely by Q3 of this year, it will tick over to general “1.0” release, he added.

“Humberto and Torben have really impressed us with their ambition to disrupt the market with a new spreadsheet paradigm that tackles the significant shortcomings of today’s solutions,” said Nundy at Lakestar. “Data integrations are native, the collaboration experience is first class and the ability to share and publish your work as an application is unique and will create more ‘Citizen developers’ to emerge. This is essential to the growing needs of today’s technology literate workforce. The level of interest they’ve received in their private beta is proof of the desirability of platforms like Rows, and we’re excited to be supporting them through their public beta launch and beyond with this investment.” Nundy is also joining Rows’ board with this round.


By Ingrid Lunden

BigChange raises $102M for a platform to help manage service fleets

We talk a lot these days about the future of work and the proliferation of new and better tools for distributed workforces, but companies focused on developing fleet management software — even if they have not really been viewed as “tech startups” — have been working on this problem for many years already. Today, one of the older players in the field is announcing its first significant round of investment, a sign both of how investors are taking more notice of these B2B players, and how the companies themselves are seeing a new opportunity for growth.

BigChange, a UK startup that builds fleet management software to help track and direct jobs to those on the go whose “offices” tend to be vehicles, has closed a round of £75 million ($102 million at today’s rates). U.S. investor Great Hill Partners.

The company has built a business by tapping into the advances of technology to build apps for field service engineers and those who manage their jobs, workers who in the past might have used phone calls and paperwork to manage how they work.

“I founded BigChange to revolutionise mobile workforce management and bring it into the 21st century. Our platform eliminates paperwork, dramatically cuts carbon, creates efficiency, promotes safer driving and means that engineers are spending less time on the roads or filling out forms and more time completing jobs,” said founder and CEO Martin Port in a statement. “We are incredibly excited to partner with Great Hill and leverage their successful track-record scaling vertical and enterprise software companies both in the UK and overseas.”

BigChange said that Great Hill’s stake values the company at £100 million (or $136 million). One report points to part of that funding being a secondary transaction, with Port pocketing £48 million of that. The company has been around since 2012 and appears to be profitable. It has raised very little in funding (around $2 million) before this, at one point trying to raise an angel round but cancelling the process before it completed, according to filings tracked by PitchBook.

As the technology industry continues to become essentially a part of every other industry in the world, this deal is notable as a sign of how its boundaries are expanding and getting more blurred.

BigChange is not a London startup, nor from the Cambridge or Oxford areas, nor from Bristol or anywhere in the south. It’s from the north, specifically Leeds — a city that has an impressive number of startups in it even if these have not had anything like the funding or attention that startups in cities and areas in the South have attracted. (One eye-catching exception is the online store Pharmacy2U: the Leeds startup has been backed by Atomico, BGF and others: given the interest of companies like Amazon to grow in this space, it’s likely one to watch.)

One of the big themes in technology right now is how a lot of the action is getting decentralised — a result of many of us now working remotely to stave off the spread of Covid-19, many people using that situation to reconsider whether they need to be living in any specific place at all, and subsequently choosing to relocate from expensive regions like the Bay Area to other places for better quality of life.

There are of course other cities like Manchester, Edinburg, Cardiff and more in the U.K. with technology ecosystems (just as there have been across many cities in the U.S. for years). But when one of these, this time out of Leeds, attracts a significant funding round, it points to the potential of something similar playing out in the U.K., too, with not just talent but more money going into regions beyond the usual suspects.

The other part of the decentralisation story here focuses on what BigChange is actually building.

Here, it’s one of the many companies that have dived into the area of building apps and larger pieces of software aimed not at “knowledge workers” but those who do not sit at desks, are on the move, and tend to work with their hands. For those who are on the road, it has apps to better manage their jobs and routes (which it calls JourneyWatch). For those back in the dispatch part of the operations, it has an app to track them better and use the software to balance the jobs and gain further analytics from the work (sold as JobWatch). These work on ruggedised devices and lean on SaaS architecture for distribution, and there are some 50,000 people across some 1,500 organizations using its apps today, with those customers located around the world, but with a large proportion of them in the U.K. itself.

BigChange is not the only company targeting workers in the field. We covered a significant funding round for another one of them out of North America, Jobber, which builds software for service professionals, just last month. Others tapping into the opportunity of bringing tech to a wider audience beyond knowledge workers include Hover (technology and a wider set of tools for home repair people to source materials, make pricing and work estimates, and run the administration of their businesses) and GoSite (a platform to help all kinds of SMBs — the key factor being that many of them are coming online for the first time — build out and run their businesses). Others in this specific area include Klipboard, Azuga, ServiceTitan, ServiceMax and more.

You might recognise the name Great Hill Partners as the PE firm that has taken majority stakes in a range of media companies like Gizmodo, Ziff Davis (way back when) and Storyblocks, and backed companies like The Real Real and Wayfair. In this case, the company was attracted by how BigChange was being adopted by a very wide range of industries that fall under “field service” as part of their workload.

“Unlike niche players that focus on smaller customers and specific sub-verticals, Martin and his accomplished team have built a flexible, all-in-one platform for field service professionals and operators,” said Drew Loucks, a partner at Great Hill Partners, in a statement. “BigChange’s technology is differentiated not only by its ability to serve commercial and residential clients of nearly any scale or vertical, but also by its award-winning product development and customer service capabilities.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Granulate nabs $30M for software to optimize workloads and latency

Services like video streaming, gaming, media-intensive advertising and marketing technology are putting more strain on bandwidth and backend latency than ever before due to the surge of online traffic in the last year. But for most organizations in today’s usage-based cloud world, that can represent a huge cost in compute power — or a major investment in a company’s own latency technology — to try to address that.

This has created an opportunity for startups building optimization tools. Today, one called Granulate — which has built software for organizations to handle those loads more intelligently and cost-effectively — is announcing a round of funding after seeing a huge boost in business in the last 10 months, with customer growth up 360% and revenues growing 570%.

The Tel Aviv startup has picked up $30 million, a Series B, led by Red Dot Capital Partners, with previous backers Insight Partners, TLV Partners, and Hetz Ventures, and new backer Dawn Capital also participating.

The timing of this Series B speaks to the demand in the market right now: it comes on the back of Granulate closing a $12 million Series A only in April last year. Investors say that its business growth is what prompted them to re-up so soon.

“Granulate’s unique technology and impressive growth since their last funding round reflects a rising market demand for their game-changing optimization solution,” said Yaniv Stern, Managing Partner at Red Dot Capital Partners, in a statement. “For companies facing rising infrastructure costs or focusing on operating cost reduction, Granulate offers a solution that can drive additional improvement regardless of any other solutions already deployed by their clients.”

Granulate is not disclosing its valuation with this latest round, which brings the total raised by the startup to $45 million. 

The opportunity in the market that Granulate is targeting is the fact that media-heavy content, and services like e-commerce that rely on efficient responsiveness on sites and apps to keep people from abandoning their shopping carts, are all on the rise.

But as companies look to keep customers happy with better quality services, they are also trying to keep an eye on margins and therefore want to keep infrastructure and computing costs low.

Granulate’s solution is software that sits at the server layer — either in the cloud or on-premises, as a customer prefers — that uses AI to detect workloads that a customer tags as important and prioritize them so that they work more efficiently. Granulate said that its software can improve response times by up to 40%, and throughput up to five times, while reducing costs by up to 60%. The company today has partnerships with AWS and Microsoft’s Azure and is in the “early stages” of talks with Google Cloud Platform.

Bigger tech companies like Netflix, Google and Amazon typically invest huge sums to build their own optimization technology, but it’s an area that smaller organizations (and you can still be huge while still being smaller than companies like Google) will not have the bandwith — pun intended — to address in the same way.

“We are aware of similar things going on inside of Netflix as what we have built,” Asaf Ezra, co-founder and CEO of Granulate, said in an interview. “But to us, it’s a testament of how large you need to be to address this issue and the talent you need to hire to address the lowest level issues.”

The company’s customers include at least one major retailer (which it can’t name), AppsFlyer, Period and PicsArt.

What will be interesting to watch is how the growth of 5G will affect the bigger problem: as Ezra notes, it will undoubtedly improve front-end latency.

“5g will not cannibalize Granulate,” he said. “In fact, when it becomes standard, the round trip time will be reduced for data, but the front end will be less of the ratio of the time, while the back-end latency will become more of the problem. 5g would solve only the access to your server, but not latency at the server itself.”

Longer term, it’s likely that Granulate will add more optimization and management solutions around those it already offers for latency, Ezra said, while also looking for ways to stand out apart from others in the same space. Competitors are in the process of some consolidation — witness Spot acquired by NetApp last June — so features based around a wider platform will likely be a key way to keep customers interested.


By Ingrid Lunden

Oyster snaps up $20M for its HR platform aimed at distributed workforces

The growth of remote working and managing workforces that are distributed well beyond the confines of a centralized physical office — or even a single country — have put a spotlight on the human resources technology that organizations use to help manage those people. Today, one of the HR startups that’s been seeing a surge of growth is announcing a round of funding to double down on its business.

Oyster, a startup and platform that helps companies through the process of hiring, onboarding and then providing contractors and full-time employees in the area  of “knowledge work” with HR services like payroll, benefits and salary management, has closed a Series A round of $20 million.

The company is already working in 100 countries, and CEO and Tony Jamous (who co-founded the company with Jack Mardack) said in an interview that the plan is to expand that list of markets, and also bring in new services, particularly to address the opportunity in emerging markets to hire more people.

Currently, Oyster does not cover candidate sourcing or any of the interviewing and evaluation process: those could be areas where it might build its own tech or partner to provide them as part of its one-stop shop. It has dabbled in virtual job fairs, as a pointer to one potential product that it might explore.

“There 1.5 billion knowledge workers coming into the workforce in next 10 years, mostly from emerging economies, while in developed economies there are some 90 million jobs unfilled,” Jamous said. “There are super powers you can gain from being globally distributed, but it poses a major challenge around HR and payroll.”

Emergence Capital, the B2B VC that has backed the likes of Zoom, Salesforce, Bill.com and our former sister site Crunchbase, is leading the funding. The Slack Fund (Slack’s strategic investment vehicle), and London firm Connect Ventures (which has previously backed the company at seed stage) are also participating.  The investment will accelerate Oyster’s rapid growth, and support its mission of enabling people to work from anywhere.

Oyster’s valuation is not being disclosed. The startup has raised about $24 million to date.

One of the great ironies of the global health pandemic is that while our worlds have become much smaller — travel and even local activities have been drastically curtailed and many of us spend day in, day out at home — the employment opportunity and scope of how organizations are expected to operate has become significantly bigger.

Public health-enforced remote working has led to companies de-coupling workers from offices, and that has opened the door to seeking out and working with the best talent, regardless of location.

This predicament may have become more acute in the last year, but it’s been one that has been gradually coming into focus for years, helped by trends in cloud computing and globalization. Jamous said that the idea for Oyster came to him was something that he’s been thinking about for years, but became more apparent when he was still at his previous startup, Nexmo — the cloud communications provider that was acquired by Vonage for $230 million in in 2016. 

At Nexmo we wanted to be a great local employer. We were headquartered in two countries but wanted to have people everywhere,” he said. “We spent millions building employment infrastructure to do that, becoming knowledgable about local laws in France, Korea and more countries.” He realized quickly that this was a highly inefficient way to work. “We weren’t ready for the complexity and diversity of issues that would come up.”

After he moved on from Nexmo and did some angel investing (he backs other distributed work juggernauts like Hopin, among others), he decided that he would try to tackle the workforce challenge as the focus of his next venture.

That was in mid-2019, pre-pandemic. It turned out that the timing was spot on, with every organization looking in the next year at ways to address their own distributed workforce challenges.

The emerging market focus, meanwhile, also has a direct link to Jamous himself: he left his home country of Lebanon to study in France when he was 17, and has essentially lived abroad since then. But as with many people who move into developed from emerging markets, he knew that the base of technical talent in his home country was something that was worth tapping and nurturing to help residents and the countries themselves improve their lots in life; and he thought he could use tech to help there, too.

Related to that wider social mission, Oyster has a pending application to become a B-Corporation.

Jamous is not the only one that has founded an HR company based on his personal experience: Turing’s founders have cited their own backgrounds growing up in India and working with people remotely from there as part of their own impetus for building Turing; and Remote’s founder hails from Europe but built Gitlab (where he had been head of product) based on a similar premise of tapping into the talent he knew existed all around the world.

And indeed, Oyster is not alone in tackling this opportunity. The list of HR startups looking to be the ADP’s of the world of distributed work include Deel, Remote, Hibob, Papaya Global, Personio, Factorial, Lattice, Turing and Rippling. And these are just some of the HR startups that have raised money in the last year; there are many, many more.

The attraction of Oyster seems to come in the simplicity of how the services are provided — you have options for contractors, and full-timers, and full, larger staff deployments in other countries. You have options to add on benefits for employees if you choose. And you have some tools to work out how hires fit into your bigger budgets, and also to guide you on remuneration in each local market. Pricing starts at $29 per person, per month for contractors, to $399 for working with full employees, to other packages for larger deployments.

Oyster works with local partners to provide some aspects of these services, but it has built the technology to make the process seamless for the customer. As with other services, it essentially handles the employment and payroll as a local provider on behalf of its customers, but can do so under contract terms that reconcile both a company’s own policies and those of the local jurisdictions (which can differ widely between each other in areas like vacation time, redundancy terms, maternity leave and more).

“It has a few well funded competitors, but that’s usually a good signal,” said Jason Green, the Emergence partner who led on its investment. “But you want to bet on the horse that will lead the race, and that comes down to execution. Here, we are betting on a team that’s done it before, an entrepreneur experienced in building a company and selling it. Tony’s made money and knows how to build a business. But more than that, he’s mission driven and that will matter in the space, and to employees.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Extra Crunch roundup: Digital health VC survey, edtech M&A, deep tech marketing, more

I had my first telehealth consultation last year, and there’s a high probability that you did, too. Since the pandemic began, consumer adoption of remote healthcare has increased 300%.

Speaking as an unvaccinated urban dweller: I’d rather speak to a nurse or doctor via my laptop than try to remain physically distanced on a bus or hailed ride traveling to/from their office.

Even after things return to (rolls eyes) normal, if I thought there was a reliable way to receive high-quality healthcare in my living room, I’d choose it.

Clearly, I’m not alone: a May 2020 McKinsey study pegged yearly domestic telehealth revenue at $3 billion before the coronavirus, but estimated that “up to $250 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could potentially be virtualized” after the pandemic abates.

That’s a staggering number, but in a category that includes startups focused on sexual health, women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, data management and testing, it’s clear to see why digital-health funding topped more than $10 billion in the first three quarters of 2020.

Drawing from The TechCrunch List, reporter Sarah Buhr interviewed eight active health tech VCs to learn more about the companies and industry verticals that have captured their interest in 2021:

  • Bryan Roberts and Bob Kocher, partners, Venrock
  • Nan Li, managing director, Obvious Ventures
  • Elizabeth Yin, general partner, Hustle Fund
  • Christina Farr, principal investor and health tech lead, OMERS Ventures
  • Ursheet Parikh, partner, Mayfield Ventures
  • Nnamdi Okike, co-founder and managing partner, 645 Ventures
  • Emily Melton, founder and managing partner, Threshold Ventures

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Since COVID-19 has renewed Washington’s focus on healthcare, many investors said they expect a friendly regulatory environment for telehealth in 2021. Additionally, healthcare providers are looking for ways to reduce costs and lower barriers for patients seeking behavioral support.

“Remote really does work,” said Elizabeth Yin, general partner at Hustle Fund.

We’ll cover digital health in more depth this year through additional surveys, vertical reporting, founder interviews and much more.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week; I hope you have a relaxing weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

8 VCs agree: Behavioral support and remote visits make digital health a strong bet for 2021

Woman having a medicine video conferencing with her doctor using digital tablet. Senior woman on a video call with a doctor using her tablet computer at home.

Image Credits: Luis Alvarez (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Lessons from Top Hat’s acquisition spree

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

In the last year, edtech startup Top Hat acquired three publishing companies: Fountainhead Press, Bludoor and Nelson HigherEd.

Natasha Mascarenhas interviewed CEO and founder Mike Silagadze to learn more about his content acquisition strategy, but her story also discussed “some rumblings of consolidation and exits in edtech land.”

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020

Last year, U.S.-based VCs invested an average of $428 million each day in domestic startups, with much of the benefits flowing to fintech companies.

This morning, Alex Wilhelm examined Q4 VC totals for Europe, which had its lowest deal count since Q1 2019, despite a record $14.3 billion in investments.

Asia’s VC industry, which saw $25.2 billion invested across 1,398 deals is seeing “a muted recovery,” says Alex.

“Falling seed volume, lots of big rounds. That’s 2020 VC around the world in a nutshell.”

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

Image Credits: Treedeo (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

In this week’s Decrypted, security reporter Zack Whittaker covered the latest news in the unfolding SolarWinds espionage campaign, now revealed to have impacted the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Malwarebytes.

In other news, the controversy regarding WhatsApp’s privacy policy change appears to be driving users to encrypted messaging app Signal, Zack reported. Facebook has put changes at WhatsApp on hold “until it could figure out how to explain the change without losing millions of users,” apparently.

Hot IPOs hang onto gains as investors keep betting on tech

A big IPO debut is a juicy topic for a few news cycles, but because there’s always another unicorn ready to break free from its corral and leap into the public markets, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to reflect.

Alex studied companies like Lemonade, Airbnb and Affirm to see how well these IPO pop stars have retained their value. Not only have most held steady, “many have actually run up the score in the ensuing weeks,” he found.

Dear Sophie: What are Biden’s immigration changes?

lone figure at entrance to maze hedge that has an American flag at the center

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

I work in HR for a tech firm. I understand that Biden is rolling out a new immigration plan today.

What is your sense as to how the new administration will change business, corporate and startup founder immigration to the U.S.?

—Free in Fremont

Hello, Extra Crunch community!

Hello in Different Languages

Image Credits: atakan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I began my career as an avid TechCrunch reader and remained one even when I joined as a writer, when I left to work on other things and now that I’ve returned to focus on better serving our community.

I’ve been chatting with some of the folks in our community and I’d love to talk to you, too. Nothing fancy, just 5-10 minutes of your time to hear more about what you want to see from us and get some feedback on what we’ve been doing so far.

If you would be so kind as to take a minute or two to fill out this form, I’ll drop you a note and hopefully we can have a chat about the future of the Extra Crunch community before we formally roll out some of the ideas we’re cooking up.

Drew Olanoff
@yoda

In 2020, VCs invested $428m into US-based startups every day

Last year was a disaster across the board thanks to a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and widespread social and political upheaval.

But if you were involved in the private markets, however, 2020 had some very clear upside — VCs flowed $156.2 billion into U.S.-based startups, “or around $428 million for each day,” reports Alex Wilhelm.

“The huge sum of money, however, was itself dwarfed by the amount of liquidity that American startups generated, some $290.1 billion.”

Using data sourced from the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, Alex used Monday’s column to recap last year’s seed, early-stage and late-stage rounds.

How and when to build marketing teams at deep tech companies

Pole lifting rubber duck with hook in its head

Image Credits: Andy Roberts (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Building a marketing team is one of the most opaque parts of spinning up a startup, but for a deep tech company, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

How can technical founders working on bleeding-edge technology find the right people to tell their story?

If you work at a post-revenue, early-stage deep tech startup (or know someone who does), this post explains when to hire a team, whether they’ll need prior industry experience, and how to source and evaluate talent.

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg

Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg. Image Credits: Bustle Digital Group

Senior Writer Anthony Ha interviewed Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg to get his thoughts on the state of digital media.

Their conversation covered a lot of ground, but the biggest news it contained focuses on Goldberg’s short-term plans.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

It may not be as glamorous as D2C, but beauty tech is big money

Directly Above Shot Of Razors On Green Background

Image Credits: Laia Divols Escude/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is not a huge fan of personal-care D2C brands merging with traditional consumer product companies.

This month, razor startup Billie and Proctor & Gamble announced they were calling off their planned merger after the FTC filed suit.

For similar reasons, Edgewell Personal Care dropped its plans last year to buy Harry’s for $1.37 billion.

In a harsher regulatory environment, “the path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs,” it seems.

Twilio CEO says wisdom lies with your developers

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 12: Founder and CEO of Twilio Jeff Lawson speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 at Pier 48 on September 12, 2016 in San Francisco, California. Image Credits: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Companies that build their own tools “tend to win the hearts, minds and wallets of their customers,” according to Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson.

In an interview with enterprise reporter Ron Miller for his new book, “Ask Your Developer,” Lawson says founders should use developer teams as a sounding board when making build-versus-buy decisions.

“Lawson’s basic philosophy in the book is that if you can build it, you should,” says Ron.


By Walter Thompson

Germany’s Xentral nabs $20M led by Sequoia to help online-facing SMBs run back offices better

Small enterprises remain one of the most underserved segments of the business market, but the growth of cloud-based services — easier to buy, easier to provision — has helped that change in recent years. Today, one of the more promising startups out of Europe building software to help SMEs run online businesses is announcing some funding to better tap into both the opportunity to build these services, and to meet a growing demand from the SME segment.

Xentral, a German startup that develops enterprise resource planning software covering a variety of back-office functions for the average online small business, has picked up a Series A of $20 million.

The company’s platform today covers services like order and warehouse management, packaging, fulfillment, accounting and sales management, and the majority of its 1,000 customers are in Germany — they include the likes of direct-to-consumer brands like YFood, KoRo, the Nu Company and Flyeralarm.

But Benedikt Sauter, the co-founder and CEO of Xentral, said the ambition is to expand into the rest of Europe, and eventually other geographies, and to fold in more services to its ERP platform, such as a more powerful API to allow customers to integrate more services — for example in cases where a business might be selling on their own site, but also Amazon, eBay, social platforms and more — to bring their businesses to a wider market.

Mainly, he said, the startup wants “to build a better ecosystem to help our customers run their own businesses better.”

The funding is being led by Sequoia Capital, with Visionaires Club (a B2B-focused VC out of Berlin) also participating.

The deal is notable for being the prolific, high-profile VC’s first investment in Europe since officially opening for business in the region. (Sequoia has backed a number of startups in Europe before this, including Graphcore, Klarna, Tessian, Unity, UiPath, n8n and Evervault — but all of those deals were done from afar.)

Augsburg-based Xentral has been around as a startup since 2018, and “as a startup” is the operative phrase here.

Sauter and his co-founder Claudia Sauter (who is also his co-founder in life: she is his wife) built the early prototype for the service originally for themselves.

The pair were running a business of their own — a hardware company they founded in 2008, selling not nails, hammers and wood, but circuit boards they they designed, along with other hardware to build computers and other connected objects. Around 2013, as the business was starting to pick up steam, they decided that they really needed better tools to manage everything at the backend so that they would have more time to build their actual products.

But Bene Sauter quickly discovered a problem in the process: smaller businesses may have Shopify and its various competitors to help manage e-commerce at the front end, but when it came to the many parts of the process at the backend, there really wasn’t a single, easy solution (remember this was eight years ago, at a time before the Shopifys of the world were yet to expand into these kinds of tools). Being of a DIY and technical persuasion — Sauter had studied hardware engineering at university — he decided that he’d try to build the tools that he wanted to use himself.

The Sauters used those tools for for years, until without much outbound effort, they started to get a some inbound interest from other online businesses to use the software, too. That led to the Sauters balancing both their own hardware business and selling the software on the side, until around 2017/2018 when they decided to wind down the hardware operation and focus on the software full-time. And from then, Xentral was born. It now has, in addition to 1,000 customers, some 65 employees working on developing the platform.

The focus with Xentral is to have a platform that is easy to implement and use, regardless of what kind of SME you might be as long as you are selling online. But even so, Sauter pointed out that the other common thread is that you need at least one person at the business who champions and understands the value of ERP. “It’s really a mindset,” he said.

The challenge with Xentral in that regard will be to see how and if they can bring more businesses to the table and tap into the kinds of tools that it provides, at the same time that a number of other players also eye up the same market. (Others in the same general category of building ERP for small businesses include online payments provider Sage, Netsuite and Acumatica.) ERP overall is forecast to become a $49.5 billion market by 2025.

Sequoia and its new partner in Europe Luciana Lixandru — who is joining Xentral’s board along with Luciana Lixandru and Visionaries’ Robert Lacher — believe however that there remains a golden opportunity to build a new kind of provider from the ground up and out of Europe specifically to target the opportunity in that region.

“I see Xentral becoming the de facto platform for any SMEs to run their businesses online,” she said in an interview. “ERP sounds a bit scary especially because it makes one think of companies like SAP, long implementation cycles, and so on. But here it’s the opposite.” She describes Xentral as “very lean and easy to use because you an start with one module and then add more. For SMEs it has to be super simple. I see this becoming like the Shopify for ERP.”


By Ingrid Lunden

German Bionic raises $20M led by Samsung for exoskeleton tech to supercharge human labor

Exoskeleton technology has been one of the more interesting developments in the world of robotics: instead of building machines that replace humans altogether, build hardware that humans can wear to supercharge their abilities. Today, German Bionic, one of the startups designing exoskeletons specifically aimed at industrial and physical applications — it describes its Cray X robot as “the world’s first connected exoskeleton for industrial use,” that is, to help people lifting and working with heavy objects with more power, precision and safety — is announcing a funding round that underscores the opportunity ahead.

The Augsburg, Germany-based company has raised $20 million, funding that it plans to use to continue building out its business, as well as its technology, both in terms of the hardware and the cloud-based software platform, German Bionic IO, that works with the exoskeletons to optimize them and help them “learn” to work better.

The Cray X currently can compensate up to 30 kg for each lifting movement, the company says.

“With our groundbreaking robotic technology that combines human work with the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), we literally strengthen the shop floor workers’ backs in an immediate and sustainable way. Measurable data underscores that this ultimately increases productivity and the efficiency of the work done,” says Armin G. Schmidt, CEO of German Bionic, in a statement. “The market for smart human-machine systems is huge and we are now perfectly positioned to take a major share and substantially improve numerous working lives.”

The Series A is being co-led by Samsung Catalyst Fund, a strategic investment arm from the hardware giant, and German investor MIG AG, one of the original backers of BioNtech, the breakthrough company that’s developed the first Covid-19 vaccine to be rolled out globally.

Storm Ventures, Benhamou Global Ventures (founded and led by Eric Benhamou, who was the founding CEO of Palm and before that the CEO of 3com), and IT Farm all also participated. Previously, German Bionic had only raised $3.5 million in seed funding (with IT Farm, Atlantic Labs, and individual investors participating).

German Bionic’s rise comes at an interesting moment in terms of how automation and cloud technology are sweeping the world of work. When people talk about the next generation of industrial work, the focus is usually on more automation and the rise of robots to replace humans in different stages of production.

But at the same time, some robotics technologists have worked on another idea. Since we’re still probably still a long way away unable to make robots that are just like humans but better in terms of cognition and all movements, instead, create hardware that doesn’t replace, but augments, live laborers, to help make them stronger while still being able to retain the reliable and fine-tuned expertise of those humans.

The argument for more automation in industrial settings has taken on a more pointed urgency in recent times, with the rise of the Covid-19 global health pandemic: factories have been one of the focus points for outbreaks, and the tendency has been to reduce physical contact and proximity to reduce the spread of the virus.

Exoskeletons don’t really address that aspect of Covid-19 — even if you might require less of them as a result of using exoskeletons, you still require humans to wear them, after all — but the general focus that automation has had has brought more attention to the opportunity of using them.

And in any case, even putting the pandemic to one side, we are still a long way away from cost-effective robots that completely replace humans in all situations. So, as we roll out vaccinations and develop a better understanding of how the virus operates, this still means a strong market for the exoskeleton concept, which analysts (quoted by German Bionic) predict could be worth as much as $20 billion by 2030.

In that context, it’s interesting to consider Samsung as an investor: the company itself, as one of the world’s leading consumer electronics and industrial electronics providers, is a manufacturing powerhouse in its own right. But it also makes equipment for others to use in their industrial work, both as a direct brand and through subsidiaries like Harman. It’s not clear which of these use cases interests Samsung: whether to use the Cray X in its own manufacturing and logistics work, or whether to become a strategic partner in manufacturing these for others. It could easily be both.

“We are pleased to support German Bionic in its continued development of world-leading exoskeleton technology,” says Young Sohn, Corporate President and Chief Strategy Officer for Samsung Electronics and Chairman of the Board, Harman, in a statement. “Exoskeleton technologies have great promise in enhancing human’s health, wellbeing and productivity. We believe that it can be a transformative technology with mass market potential.”

German Bionic describes its Cray X as a “self-learning power suit” aimed primarily at reinforcing lifting movements and to safeguard the wearer from making bad calls that could cause injuries. That could apply both to those in factories, or those in warehouses, or even sole trader mechanics working in your local garage. The company is not disclosing a list of customers, except to note that it includes, in the words of a spokesperson, “a big logistics player, industrial producers and infrastructure hubs.” One of these, the Stuttgart Airport, is highlighted on its site.  

“Previously, efficiency gains and health promotion in manual labor were often at odds with one another. German Bionic Systems managed to not only break through this paradigm, but also to make manual labor a part of the digital transformation and elegantly integrate it into the smart factory,” says Michael Motschmann, managing partner with MIG in a statement. “We see immense potential with the company and are particularly happy to be working together with a first-class team of experienced entrepreneurs and engineers.”

Exoskeletons as a concept have been around for over a decade already — MIT developed its first exoskeleton, aimed to help soldiers carrying heavy loads — back in 2007, but advancements in cloud computing, smaller processors for the hardware itself, and artificial intelligence have really opened up the idea of where and how these might augment humans. In addition to industry, some of the other applications have included helping people with knee injuries (or looking to avoid knee injuries!) ski better, and for medical purposes, although the recent pandemic has put a strain on some of these use cases, leading to indefinite pauses in production.


By Ingrid Lunden

Firebolt raises $37M to take on Snowflake, Amazon and Google with a new approach to data warehousing

For many organizations, the shift to cloud computing has played out more realistically as a shift to hybrid architectures, where a company’s data is just as likely to reside in one of a number of clouds, as it might in an on-premise deployment, in a data warehouse, or in a data lake. Today, a startup that has built a more comprehensive way to assess, analyse and use that data is announcing funding as it looks to take on Snowflake, Amazon, Google and others in the area of enterprise data analytics.

Firebolt, which has redesigned the concept of a data warehouse to work more efficiently and at a lower cost, is today announcing that it has raised $37 million from Zeev Ventures, TLV Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners and Angular Ventures. It plans to use the funding to continue developing its product and bring on more customers.

The company is officially “launching” today but — as is the case with so many enterprise startups these days operating in stealth — it has been around for two years already building its platform and signing commercial deals. It now has some 12 large enterprise customers and is “really busy” with new business, said CEO is Eldad Farkash in an interview.

The funding may sound like a large amount for a company that has not really been out in the open, but part of the reason is because of the track record of the founders. Farkash, was one of the founders of SiSense, the successful business intelligence startup, and he has co-founded Firebolt with two others who were on SiSense’s founding team, Saar Bitner as COO and Ariel Yaroshevich as CTO.

At SiSense, these three were coming up against an issue: when you are dealing in terabytes of data, cloud data warehouses were straining to deliver good performance to power its analytics and other tools, and the only way to potentially continue to mitigate that was by piling on more cloud capacity.

Farkash is something of a technical savant and said that he decided to move on and build Firebolt to see if he could tackle this, which he described as a new, difficult, and “meaningful” problem. “The only thing I know how to do is build startups,” he joked.

In his opinion, while data warehousing has been a big breakthrough in how to handle the mass of data that companies now amass and want to use better, it has started to feel like a dated solution.

“Data warehouses are solving yesterday’s problem, which was, ‘How do I migrate to the cloud and deal with scale?’” he said, citing Google’s BigQuery, Amazon’s RedShift and Snowflake as fitting answers for that issue. “We see Firebolt as the new entrant in that space, with a new take on design on technology. We change the discussion from one of scale to one of speed and efficiency.”

The startup claims that its performance is up to 182 times faster than that of other data warehouses. It’s a SQL-based system that works on principles that Farkash said came out of academic research that had yet to be applied anywhere, around how to handle data in a lighter way, using new techniques in compression and how data is parsed. Data lakes in turn can be connected up with a wider data ecosystem, and what it translates to is a much smaller requirement for cloud capacity.

This is not just a problem at SiSense. With enterprise data continuing to grow exponentially, cloud analytics is growing with it, and is estimated by 2025 to be a $65 billion market, Firebolt estimates.

Still, Farkash said the Firebolt concept was initially a challenging sell even to the engineers that it eventually hired to build out the business: it required building completely new warehouses from the ground up to run the platform, five of which exist today and will be augmented with more, on the back of this funding, he said.

And it should be pointed out that its competitors are not exactly sitting still either. Just yesterday, Dataform announced that it had been acquired by Google to help it build out and run better performance at BigQuery.

“Firebolt created a SaaS product that changes the analytics experience over big data sets” Oren Zeev of Zeev Ventures said in a statement. “The pace of innovation in the big data space has lagged the explosion in data growth rendering most data warehousing solutions too slow, too expensive, or too complex to scale. Firebolt takes cloud data warehousing to the next level by offering the world’s most powerful analytical engine. This means companies can now analyze multi Terabyte / Petabyte data sets easily at significantly lower costs and provide a truly interactive user experience to their employees, customers or anyone who needs to access the data.”


By Ingrid Lunden

Cellwize raises $32M to help carriers and their partners adopt and run 5G services

As 5G slowly moves from being a theoretical to an active part of the coverage map for the mobile industry — if not for consumers themselves — companies that are helping carriers make the migration less painful and less costly are seeing a boost of attention.

In the latest development, Cellwize, a startup that’s built a platform to automate and optimize data for carriers to run 5G networks within multi-vendor environments, has raised $32 million — funding that it will use to continue expanding its business into more geographies and investing in R&D to bring more capabilities to its flagship CHIME platform.

The funding is notable because of the list of strategic companies doing the investing, as well as because of the amount of traction that Cellwize has had to date.

The Series B round is being co-led Intel Capital and Qualcomm Ventures LLC, and Verizon Ventures (which is part of Verizon, which also owns TechCrunch by way of Verizon Media) and Samsung Next, with existing shareholders also participating. That list includes Deutsche Telekom and Sonae, a Portuguese conglomerate that owns multiple brands in retail, financial services, telecoms and more.

That backing underscores Cellwize’s growth. The company — which is based in Israel with operations also in Dallas and Singapore — says it currently provides services to some 40 carriers (including Verizon, Telefonica and more), covering 16 countries, 3 million cell sites, and 800 million subscribers.

Cellwize is not disclosing its valuation but it has raised $56.5 million from investors to date.

5G holds a lot of promise for carriers, their vendors, handset makers and others in the mobile ecosystem: the belief is that faster and more efficient speeds for wireless data will unlock a new wave of services and usage and revenues from services for consumers and business, covering not just people but IoT networks, too.

Notwithstanding the concerns some have had with health risks, despite much of that theory being debunked over the years, one of the technical issues with 5G has been implementing it.

Migrating can be costly and laborious, not least because carriers will likely be running hybrid systems in the Radio Access Network (RAN, which controls how devices interface with carriers’ networks), where they will be managing legacy networks (eg, 2G, 3G, 4G, LTE) alongside 5G, and working with multiple vendors within 5G itself.

Cellwize positions its CHIME platform — which works as an all-in-one tool that covers configuring new 5G networks, optimizing and monitoring data on them, and also providing APIs for third-party developers to integrate with it — as the bridge to letting carriers operate in the more open-shop approach that is afforded by the move to 5G.

“While large companies have traditionally been more dominant in the RAN market, 5G is changing the landscape for how the entire mobile industry operates,” said Ofir Zemer, Cellwize’s CEO. “These traditional vendors usually offer solutions which plug into their own equipment, while not allowing third parties to connect, and this creates a closed and limited ecosystem. [But] the large operators also are not interested in being tied to one vendor: not technology-wise and not on the business side – as they identify this as an inhibitor to their own innovation.”

Cellwize provides an open platform that allows a carrier to plan, deploy and manage the RAN in that kind of multi-vendor ecosystem. “We have seen an extremely high demand for our solution and as 5G rollouts continue to increase globally, we expect the demand for our product will only continue to grow,” he added.

Previously, Zemer said that carriers would build their own products internally to manage data in the RAN, but these “struggle to support 5G.”

The competition element is not just lip service: the fact that both Intel and Qualcomm — competitors in key respects — are investing in this round underscores how Cellwize sees itself as a kind of Switzerland in mobile architecture. It also underscores that both view easy and deep integrations with its tech as something worth backing, given the priorities of each of their carrier customers.

“Over the last decade, Intel technologies have been instrumental in enabling the communications industry to transform networks with an agile and scalable infrastructure,” said David Flanagan, VP and senior MD at Intel Capital, in a statement. “With the challenges in managing the high complexity of radio access networks, we are encouraged by the opportunity in front of Cellwize to explore ways to utilize their AI-based automation capabilities as Intel brings the benefits of cloud architectures to service provider and private networks.”

“Qualcomm is at the forefront of 5G expansion, creating a robust ecosystem of technologies that will usher in the new era of connectivity,” added Merav Weinryb, Senior Director of Qualcomm Israel Ltd. and MD of Qualcomm Ventures Israel and Europe. “As a leader in RAN automation and orchestration, Cellwize plays an important role in 5G deployment. We are excited to support Cellwize through the Qualcomm Ventures’ 5G global ecosystem fund as they scale and expedite 5G adoption worldwide.”

And that is the key point. Right now there are precious few 5G deployments, and sometimes, when you read some the less shiny reports of 5G rollouts, you might be forgiven for feeling like it’s more marketing than reality at this point. But Zemer — who is not a co-founder (both of them have left the company) but has been with it since 2013, almost from the start — is sitting in on the meetings with carriers, and he believes that it won’t be long before all that tips.

“Within the next five years, approximately 75% of mobile connections will be powered by 5G, and 2.6 billion 5G mobile subscriptions will be serving 65% of the world’s population,” he said. “While 5G technology holds a tremendous amount of promise, the reality is that it is also hyper-complex, comprised of multiple technologies, architectures, bands, layers, and RAN/vRAN players. We are working with network operators around the world to help them overcome the challenges of rolling out and managing these next generation networks, by automating their entire RAN processes, allowing them to successfully deliver 5G to their customers.”


By Ingrid Lunden