This startup reworked its privacy-friendly sensors to help battle COVID-19

One little-known home and retail automation startup might seem like an unlikely candidate to help combat the ongoing pandemic. But its founder says its technology can do just that, even if it wasn’t the company’s original plan.

Butlr, a spin-out of the MIT Media Lab, uses a mix of wireless, battery-powered hardware and artificial intelligence to track people’s movements indoors without violating their privacy. The startup uses ceiling-mounted sensors to detect individuals’ body heat to track where a person walks and where they might go next. The use-cases are near-endless. The sensors can turn on mood-lighting or air conditioning when it detects movement, help businesses understand how shoppers navigate their stores, determine the wait-time in the queues at the checkout, and even sound the alarm if it detects a person after-hours.

By using passive infrared sensors to detect only body heat, the sensors don’t know who you are — only where you are and where you’re heading. The tracking stops as soon as you leave the sensor’s range, like when you leave a store.

The technology is in high demand. Butlr says some 200,000 retail stores use its technology, not least because it’s far cheaper than the more privacy-invading — and expensive — alternatives, like surveillance cameras and facial recognition.

But when the pandemic hit, most of those stores closed — as effectively did entire cities and nations — to counter the ongoing threat from of COVID-19. But those stores would have to open again, and so Butlr got back to work.

Butlr’s privacy-friendly body heat sensors don’t know who you are — only where you are. Now the company is retooling its technology to help combat coronavirus. (Image: Butlr)

Butlr’s co-founder Honghao Deng told TechCrunch that it began retooling its technology to help support stores opening again.

The company quickly rolled out new software features — like maximum occupancy and queue management — to help stores with sensors already installed cope with the new but ever-changing laws and guidance that businesses had to comply with.

Deng said that the sensors can make sure no more than the allowed number of people can be in a store at once, and make sure that staff are protected from customers by helping to enforce social distancing rules. Customers can also see live queue data to help them pick a less-crowded time to shop, said Deng.

All these things before a pandemic might have sounded, frankly, a little dull. Fast forward to the middle of a pandemic and you’re probably thankful for all the help — and the technology — you can get.

Butlr tested its new features in China at the height of the pandemic’s rise in February, and later rolled out to its global customers, including in the United States. Deng said Butlr’s technology is already helping customers at furniture store Steelcase, supermarket chain 99 Ranch Market, and the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi to help them reopen while minimizing the risk to others.

It’s a pivot that’s paid off. Last month Butlr raised $1.2 million in seed funding, just as the pandemic was reaching its peak in the United States.

Nobody knew a pandemic was coming, not least Deng. And as the pandemic spread, businesses have suffered. If it wasn’t for quick thinking, Butlr might’ve been another startup that succumbed to the pandemic.

Instead, the startup is probably going to help save lives — and without compromising anyone’s privacy.

VCs, celebrities, and athletes are writing a new LA story to bring women’s soccer to the city

When Upfront Ventures partner Kara Nortman first met Natalie Portman a few years ago to talk about ways their non-profit organizations All Raise and Time’s Up could collaborate, she never realized they’d eventually be partners on a sports franchise.

Now the two women are co-founders of Angel City, leading a gaggle of venture capital, sports, and celebrity investors, alongside Angel City co-founder and President Julie Uhrman, in bringing a National Women’s Soccer League team to Los Angeles by the Spring of 2022.

Backing the team is Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and a slew of investors including his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams (and their daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.); the actors Uzo Aduba, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, and Lily Singh and former US Women’s National Team players including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Rachel Buehler, Shannon Boxx, Amanda Cromwell, Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney Holiday; social media stuntman Casey Neistat, and more.

While it might seem strange to launch a new sports league with an epidemic still raging in the United States, Nortman said that the decision to invest and bring the team to Los Angeles was simple.

“We’re venture capitalists. We’re optimists,” Nortman said.

For Nortman, the story of Angel City begins with a lifetime love of sports. Growing up in a fanatical sports family in Los Angeles, Nortman was a fan of all of the local teams: the Dodgers, the Kings, the Lakers, were constantly on television and the family evne attended the 99 Women’s World Cup game at the Rose Bowl. But it was in 2015 when she took her family to see the Women’s World Cup in Vancouver that Nortman’s private passion for soccer began to turn into a more public search to bring more attention to the sport — and the women who play it.

“I was like… ‘Hey! Why won’t you take my money?” Nortman said. Four years ago, the wildly successful women’s national team had a hard time making a living as full-time professional athletes in their chosen sport, Nortman said.

Image Credits: Angel City

The pay equity fights that the women’s team has led are still ongoing (and suffered a setback earlier this year), but Nortman and Portman saw an opportunity to chart a new course for the league with the combination of both of their support.

After a meeting to discuss Time’s Up and All Raise, the two bonded over soccer. “She said, ‘Why don’t I bring a bunch of my friends to a game and we can do for them what Jack Nicholson did for the Lakers and ‘Showtime’?” Nortman said.

So the two women started bringing their networks to soccer games and gathering momentum and support for the women’s soccer league and the sport broadly.

Those conversations and trips to watch the National team play a series of friendly games ahead of the 2019 World Cup led to talk of bringing an expansion team to Los Angeles, according to Nortman.

“Around that time Natalie started saying to me ‘Let’s go find a team’,” said Nortman. So that’s what the two women did. They held discussions with the league on buying into the franchise and began putting their investot group together.

“What we’re excited about is building the brand and building the best athletes in the world in the city with the biggest soccer audience in the country,” said Nortman. “And can we do it in a way that we could have a female led group.”

The financial terms of the deal to bring the franchise to Los Angeles, aren’t being disclosed, but they definitely run in the tens of millions of dollars. That’s still small potatoes compared to the current valuation of some of the men’s teams like the Los Angeles Football Club that are worth upwards of half a billion dollars, according to some estimates.

For Nortman, running a franchise like Angel City was a full time job — something that she already had. So she tapped her circle of business connections to bring in a President for the group and found Julie Uhrman.

An LA native like Nortman, Uhrman had founded a gaming console business, Ouya, that was backed by Kleiner Perkins and gone on to media roles at Lion’s Gate Entertainment and Playboy Enterprises. Equally as important, Uhrman was part of a casual pick-up basketball game among women investors, entrepreneurs and their friends in Los Angeles that Nortman had helped set up.

Over the course of a few games, Nortman brought Uhrman on board to lead the Angel City efforts and the combination of three women propelled the Angel City launch.

For each of the founders, activism and community engagement is as important as the business of setting up a new sports business in Los Angeles.

So the group has partnered with the LA84 Foundation, which brings sports to underserved communities. That non-profit is also a partner with Angel City.

“In 2014, we established the Play Equity Fund, the only nonprofit focused on Play Equity as a social justice issue,” said Renata Simril, President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “The Play Equity Fund is committed to driving access to sports for underserved communities, including communities of color, girls, the physically challenged and developmentally disabled. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with this incredible group of women upon the launch of their new undertaking. They are dedicated to making a positive impact for those who need it most.”

The enthusiasm for owning a sports franchise is interesting given some of the longer term trends in consumer behavior and an overall decline in interest in live sports. Over the past few years interest in all of the major American sports has waned — audiences for championship events like the NBA Finals, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Indy 500 are all declining as demographics shift and many people would rather watch Twitch streams than tournaments.

Nortman and Ohanian think they can tap into their tech savvy and come up with ways to help counteract these trends.

Our brains want to be set up to say that there’s real sport versus esports,” said Nortman. “[But] the way we think about it is brands. If you think about Manchester United and their brand it’s about more than sports… We view soccer and the physical soccer game as one expression of our brand but it may not be the first expression of our brand.”

Still, first and foremost is the Los Angeles community and getting the city to embrace the franchise and its broader mission.

“Today we take an exciting step by announcing the first women majority-owned and led ownership group. I am thrilled by the opportunity to partner with this incredible group of people to bring a professional women’s soccer team to Los Angeles. Together, we aim to build not only a winning team on the field, but also to develop a passionately loyal fan base,” said Portman in a statement. “We also hope to make a substantive impact on our community, committing to extending access to sports for young people in Los Angeles through our relationship with the LA84 Foundation. Sports are such a joyful way to bring people together, and this has the power to make tangible change for female athletes both in our community and in the professional sphere.”

VCs, celebrities, and athletes are writing a new LA story to bring women’s soccer to the city

When Upfront Ventures partner Kara Nortman first met Natalie Portman a few years ago to talk about ways their non-profit organizations All Raise and Time’s Up could collaborate, she never realized they’d eventually be partners on a sports franchise.

Now the two women are co-founders of Angel City, leading a gaggle of venture capital, sports, and celebrity investors, alongside Angel City co-founder and President Julie Uhrman, in bringing a National Women’s Soccer League team to Los Angeles by the Spring of 2022.

Backing the team is Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and a slew of investors including his wife, tennis superstar Serena Williams (and their daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr.); the actors Uzo Aduba, America Ferrera, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, and Lily Singh and former US Women’s National Team players including Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, Rachel Buehler, Shannon Boxx, Amanda Cromwell, Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney Holiday; social media stuntman Casey Neistat, and more.

While it might seem strange to launch a new sports league with an epidemic still raging in the United States, Nortman said that the decision to invest and bring the team to Los Angeles was simple.

“We’re venture capitalists. We’re optimists,” Nortman said.

For Nortman, the story of Angel City begins with a lifetime love of sports. Growing up in a fanatical sports family in Los Angeles, Nortman was a fan of all of the local teams: the Dodgers, the Kings, the Lakers, were constantly on television and the family evne attended the 99 Women’s World Cup game at the Rose Bowl. But it was in 2015 when she took her family to see the Women’s World Cup in Vancouver that Nortman’s private passion for soccer began to turn into a more public search to bring more attention to the sport — and the women who play it.

“I was like… ‘Hey! Why won’t you take my money?” Nortman said. Four years ago, the wildly successful women’s national team had a hard time making a living as full-time professional athletes in their chosen sport, Nortman said.

Image Credits: Angel City

The pay equity fights that the women’s team has led are still ongoing (and suffered a setback earlier this year), but Nortman and Portman saw an opportunity to chart a new course for the league with the combination of both of their support.

After a meeting to discuss Time’s Up and All Raise, the two bonded over soccer. “She said, ‘Why don’t I bring a bunch of my friends to a game and we can do for them what Jack Nicholson did for the Lakers and ‘Showtime’?” Nortman said.

So the two women started bringing their networks to soccer games and gathering momentum and support for the women’s soccer league and the sport broadly.

Those conversations and trips to watch the National team play a series of friendly games ahead of the 2019 World Cup led to talk of bringing an expansion team to Los Angeles, according to Nortman.

“Around that time Natalie started saying to me ‘Let’s go find a team’,” said Nortman. So that’s what the two women did. They held discussions with the league on buying into the franchise and began putting their investot group together.

“What we’re excited about is building the brand and building the best athletes in the world in the city with the biggest soccer audience in the country,” said Nortman. “And can we do it in a way that we could have a female led group.”

The financial terms of the deal to bring the franchise to Los Angeles, aren’t being disclosed, but they definitely run in the tens of millions of dollars. That’s still small potatoes compared to the current valuation of some of the men’s teams like the Los Angeles Football Club that are worth upwards of half a billion dollars, according to some estimates.

For Nortman, running a franchise like Angel City was a full time job — something that she already had. So she tapped her circle of business connections to bring in a President for the group and found Julie Uhrman.

An LA native like Nortman, Uhrman had founded a gaming console business, Ouya, that was backed by Kleiner Perkins and gone on to media roles at Lion’s Gate Entertainment and Playboy Enterprises. Equally as important, Uhrman was part of a casual pick-up basketball game among women investors, entrepreneurs and their friends in Los Angeles that Nortman had helped set up.

Over the course of a few games, Nortman brought Uhrman on board to lead the Angel City efforts and the combination of three women propelled the Angel City launch.

For each of the founders, activism and community engagement is as important as the business of setting up a new sports business in Los Angeles.

So the group has partnered with the LA84 Foundation, which brings sports to underserved communities. That non-profit is also a partner with Angel City.

“In 2014, we established the Play Equity Fund, the only nonprofit focused on Play Equity as a social justice issue,” said Renata Simril, President & CEO of the LA84 Foundation. “The Play Equity Fund is committed to driving access to sports for underserved communities, including communities of color, girls, the physically challenged and developmentally disabled. We couldn’t be more excited to partner with this incredible group of women upon the launch of their new undertaking. They are dedicated to making a positive impact for those who need it most.”

The enthusiasm for owning a sports franchise is interesting given some of the longer term trends in consumer behavior and an overall decline in interest in live sports. Over the past few years interest in all of the major American sports has waned — audiences for championship events like the NBA Finals, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Indy 500 are all declining as demographics shift and many people would rather watch Twitch streams than tournaments.

Nortman and Ohanian think they can tap into their tech savvy and come up with ways to help counteract these trends.

Our brains want to be set up to say that there’s real sport versus esports,” said Nortman. “[But] the way we think about it is brands. If you think about Manchester United and their brand it’s about more than sports… We view soccer and the physical soccer game as one expression of our brand but it may not be the first expression of our brand.”

Still, first and foremost is the Los Angeles community and getting the city to embrace the franchise and its broader mission.

“Today we take an exciting step by announcing the first women majority-owned and led ownership group. I am thrilled by the opportunity to partner with this incredible group of people to bring a professional women’s soccer team to Los Angeles. Together, we aim to build not only a winning team on the field, but also to develop a passionately loyal fan base,” said Portman in a statement. “We also hope to make a substantive impact on our community, committing to extending access to sports for young people in Los Angeles through our relationship with the LA84 Foundation. Sports are such a joyful way to bring people together, and this has the power to make tangible change for female athletes both in our community and in the professional sphere.”

Eco-friendly laundry goods subscription service smol raises £8M from Balderton

Smol is a startup that delivers eco-friendly laundry capsules and dishwasher tablets on subscription through letterboxes, which undercut the price of the leading brands, to people’s homes. It’s now raised £8 million in a Series A funding round led by Balderton Capital with participation from JamJar Investments. The funding will see smol push into new product categories, expand further into new markets and expand its team. Before this round smol had been funded by seed money from private investors.  

Created by former Unilever employees, Paula Quazi and Nick Green in 2018, its also launched its own-brand, animal-fat-free, vegan fabric conditioner and a 100% plastic-free, child-lock packaging for its laundry and dishwashing products, as well as fabric conditioner made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic which as recyclable. Smol also offers a returns scheme for refill and reuse.

P&G and Unilever currently dominate the market, while smog hopes to become ‘the dollar shave club’ of laundry.

Paula Quazi, Co-founder of smol said in a statement: “Having seen how the industry has barely innovated in over a hundred years we launched smol to take the hassle out of washing for families whose laundry needs have been ignored for decades.”

Suranga Chandratillake, Partner at Balderton Capital said: “When people think of technology disruption, it is normal to think of digital products and internet tools. However, technology has the power to make life better for us in the most unexpected ways and we believe Paula, Nick and their amazing team have tapped into just such an opportunity at smol.”

Eco-friendly laundry goods subscription service smol raises £8M from Balderton

Smol is a startup that delivers eco-friendly laundry capsules and dishwasher tablets on subscription through letterboxes, which undercut the price of the leading brands, to people’s homes. It’s now raised £8 million in a Series A funding round led by Balderton Capital with participation from JamJar Investments. The funding will see smol push into new product categories, expand further into new markets and expand its team. Before this round smol had been funded by seed money from private investors.  

Created by former Unilever employees, Paula Quazi and Nick Green in 2018, its also launched its own-brand, animal-fat-free, vegan fabric conditioner and a 100% plastic-free, child-lock packaging for its laundry and dishwashing products, as well as fabric conditioner made from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic which as recyclable. Smol also offers a returns scheme for refill and reuse.

P&G and Unilever currently dominate the market, while smog hopes to become ‘the dollar shave club’ of laundry.

Paula Quazi, Co-founder of smol said in a statement: “Having seen how the industry has barely innovated in over a hundred years we launched smol to take the hassle out of washing for families whose laundry needs have been ignored for decades.”

Suranga Chandratillake, Partner at Balderton Capital said: “When people think of technology disruption, it is normal to think of digital products and internet tools. However, technology has the power to make life better for us in the most unexpected ways and we believe Paula, Nick and their amazing team have tapped into just such an opportunity at smol.”

New telemedicine service The Cusp rolls out at-home hormone test for women to predict menopause

The Cusp, a newly launched startup offering telemedicine services for women in perimenopause and menopause, is launching an at-home hormone test service that slashes the cost of in-office visits and lab tests.

Women in California can order the test at a cost of $159 for a telemedical consultation and test, versus roughly $500 for having the same test and lab work administered in a clinic, according to the company.

Unlike other, commonly-prescribed hormone tests The Cusp bases its still-to-be-clinically-validated test on new research that a key hormone measurement can help predict the time to menopause. The company is currently working with researchers to help the broader medical community validate these findings. 

Although the test may not be clinically validated, the company said that its use of “menopause specialists” with specific training in issues surrounding perimenopause and menopause can provide a more complete diagnosis of a woman’s current state and what is likely to come next based on both clinical and laboratory data.

“Menopause is very stigmatized and midlife care is a highly underserved market. We launched The Cusp to provide women with a new model of care during this stage of life so women can optimize their health,” said The Cusp, chief executive, Taylor Sittler. “Our focus begins with perimenopause treatment as early care can lead to healthier outcomes.”

The company said that the test is best for women experiencing early signs of perimenopause, typically between the ages of 42 and 50.

“Throughout my career I’ve been focused on the intersection of women’s health, menopause, and breast cancer. It was shocking to me how little information is out there for women, so I worked with national committees helping establish guidelines for managing menopause symptoms and sexual functioning in cancer survivors,” said Dr. Mindy Goldman, Director of the Gynecology Center for Cancer Survivors and At-Risk Women Program at UCSF, and a physician working with The Cusp. “I’m thrilled to be a part of  The Cusp, as we are on the front lines providing women with comprehensive diagnostic tools and personalized care so that menopause can be faced head-on and managed with a multi-pronged approach that can include medical interventions, naturopathic solutions, and/or hormone replacement therapies.”

The company is already providing care to roughly 75 patients already and is growing its membership rapidly. With its recent launch, The Cusp has joined startups like CurieMD, Elektra Health, and Geneve, which are all focused on providing medical services to women in perimenopause and menopause.

To date, the company has raised $4 million from investors including HomeBrew, Village Global and individual investors like Katie Stanton and Megan Pai.

Sittler, a co-founder of Color Genomics, sees an opportunity in applying new diagnostics tests and technology to treating women as they enter menopause.

The Cusp charges an initial $210 for tests and the first three months of care and then an additional monthly fee of $72 per month.

“Being able to provide these personalized solutions that involve proprietary technologies. We would love to get into newer treatments… once we get a few zeros to our member number… there’s an initial advantage that we have in terms of the integration we’ve already done and the advantages that we have,” said Sittler.

New telemedicine service The Cusp rolls out at-home hormone test for women to predict menopause

The Cusp, a newly launched startup offering telemedicine services for women in perimenopause and menopause, is launching an at-home hormone test service that slashes the cost of in-office visits and lab tests.

Women in California can order the test at a cost of $159 for a telemedical consultation and test, versus roughly $500 for having the same test and lab work administered in a clinic, according to the company.

Unlike other, commonly-prescribed hormone tests The Cusp bases its still-to-be-clinically-validated test on new research that a key hormone measurement can help predict the time to menopause. The company is currently working with researchers to help the broader medical community validate these findings. 

Although the test may not be clinically validated, the company said that its use of “menopause specialists” with specific training in issues surrounding perimenopause and menopause can provide a more complete diagnosis of a woman’s current state and what is likely to come next based on both clinical and laboratory data.

“Menopause is very stigmatized and midlife care is a highly underserved market. We launched The Cusp to provide women with a new model of care during this stage of life so women can optimize their health,” said The Cusp, chief executive, Taylor Sittler. “Our focus begins with perimenopause treatment as early care can lead to healthier outcomes.”

The company said that the test is best for women experiencing early signs of perimenopause, typically between the ages of 42 and 50.

“Throughout my career I’ve been focused on the intersection of women’s health, menopause, and breast cancer. It was shocking to me how little information is out there for women, so I worked with national committees helping establish guidelines for managing menopause symptoms and sexual functioning in cancer survivors,” said Dr. Mindy Goldman, Director of the Gynecology Center for Cancer Survivors and At-Risk Women Program at UCSF, and a physician working with The Cusp. “I’m thrilled to be a part of  The Cusp, as we are on the front lines providing women with comprehensive diagnostic tools and personalized care so that menopause can be faced head-on and managed with a multi-pronged approach that can include medical interventions, naturopathic solutions, and/or hormone replacement therapies.”

The company is already providing care to roughly 75 patients already and is growing its membership rapidly. With its recent launch, The Cusp has joined startups like CurieMD, Elektra Health, and Geneve, which are all focused on providing medical services to women in perimenopause and menopause.

To date, the company has raised $4 million from investors including HomeBrew, Village Global and individual investors like Katie Stanton and Megan Pai.

Sittler, a co-founder of Color Genomics, sees an opportunity in applying new diagnostics tests and technology to treating women as they enter menopause.

The Cusp charges an initial $210 for tests and the first three months of care and then an additional monthly fee of $72 per month.

“Being able to provide these personalized solutions that involve proprietary technologies. We would love to get into newer treatments… once we get a few zeros to our member number… there’s an initial advantage that we have in terms of the integration we’ve already done and the advantages that we have,” said Sittler.

ClassPass co-founder Sanjiv Sanghavi joins Arcadia, bringing consumer marketing savvy to clean energy

“Helping navigate the elusiveness of product market fit” is how Sanjiv Sanghavi, the co-founder of ClassPass and itinerant startup executive describes his roles at different companies. 

From ClassPass through Knotel, Sanghavi has shepherded several businesses to growth and over a billion dollar valuations, now he’s looking to bring that branding and marketing savvy to the world of renewable energy as the new chief product officer at Arcadia.

The company encourages renewable energy development by offsetting its customers’ electricity usage by buying an equivalent amount of renewable power or investing in renewable energy projects that provide renewable credits to offset fossil fuel usage.

Sanjiv Sanghavi, ClassPass co-founder and now chief product officer at Arcadia. Image Credit: Arcadia

We founded Arcadia to aggregate the power of consumer demand to fight climate change,” said Kiran Bhatraju, the founder and chief executive at Arcadia, in a statement. “Sanjiv’s deep knowledge of creating and building engaging consumer products will be crucial in the coming years to help us continue to build a world-class home energy experience that people love, and the planet needs.”

Sanghavi will be integral to Arcadia’s expansion into the northeast as it looks to grow its footprint across the United States.

Over the past six months Arcadia has steadily built out its presence across the Atlantic seaboard as it staffs its New York office. The company added a senior vice president of design who previously worked at DoorDash, WeWork, and PayPal, Josh Abrams, and is actively hiring. 

I was drawn to Arcadia because of its lasting power; I wanted to build something that would make an impact for generations,” said Sanghavi. “I believe that what Arcadia is doing is astounding — we’re building a bridge from the people who are generating renewable energy to those who want to do something good.”  

 The company has raised $70 million to date, according to Crunchbase, from investors including G2VP, BoxGroup, Wonder Ventures and Energy Impact Partners. 

 

Legaltech startup Orbital Witness scores £3.3M to create a ‘universal risk rating’ for real estate

Orbital Witness, a U.K.-based legaltech startup developing “AI-powered” software to transform the £4 billion U.K. property due diligence market, has raised £3.3 million in seed funding.

The round is led by LocalGlobe and Outward VC, with participation from previous investors, including Seedcamp and JLL Spark. It brings Orbital Witness’s total funding to £4.5 million.

Launched with its first customer in September 2018 and now used by numerous large law firms, including four of the five so-called “Magic Circle” firms, Orbital Witness’ long-term vision is to build a “universal risk rating” for real estate. “Think of a credit risk check for land and property,” Orbital Witness co-founder and COO Will Pearce tells me.

To do this, the startup is employing machine learning technology that it hopes can mirror the process a lawyer goes through when gathering and checking property information. The idea is to use AI to “predetermine” issues that constitute a potential risk.

“Our technology is adept at trawling through and extracting key issues from the wide range of sources that a property lawyer considers, including HM Land Registry and local authorities,” explains Pearce. “For example, a user is alerted to third party rights, charges and restrictions that might block a sale. In our current state of product development, this allows Orbital Witness to act as an ‘early warning system’ for property lawyers”.

Zooming out further, Pearce says real estate is the world’s largest asset class, but that the process of recording and reporting on property rights has not materially changed in 150 years. This sees real estate lawyers having to manually collect and review information from an array of disparate sources, which can often take weeks to arrive before they can even start. Meanwhile, the various real estate stakeholders — from banks making lending decisions, large commercial real estate PE funds, to residential homebuyers — can’t sign off transactions until the lawyers have completed their due diligence.

“Anyone who has ever bought a home will appreciate the frustrations of dealing with this legal due diligence process, and in commercial real estate, where Orbital Witness is initially focussed, many of these problems are amplified,” says Pearce.

The longer term plan is to ingest a broader range of data, so that Orbital Witness can eventually become trusted to provide a universal risk rating for real estate. This will see its risk modelling solutions wired to also include geographic information (e.g. flood risk), privately held information that can be uploaded to the platform (e.g. rights of lights reports), and also non-legal information (e.g. financial data from public records and ratings agencies).

Adds the Orbital Witness co-founder: “Very importantly, risk in real estate is dependent on the context of a transaction. For a real estate investor purchasing a block of flats, they are interested in understanding the security of rental income derived from the leaseholds. However, a property developer transacting on the same building, may be more interested in any hidden covenants that could prevent the ability to build or redevelop the site”.

Legaltech startup Orbital Witness scores £3.3M to create a ‘universal risk rating’ for real estate

Orbital Witness, a U.K.-based legaltech startup developing “AI-powered” software to transform the £4 billion U.K. property due diligence market, has raised £3.3 million in seed funding.

The round is led by LocalGlobe and Outward VC, with participation from previous investors, including Seedcamp and JLL Spark. It brings Orbital Witness’s total funding to £4.5 million.

Launched with its first customer in September 2018 and now used by numerous large law firms, including four of the five so-called “Magic Circle” firms, Orbital Witness’ long-term vision is to build a “universal risk rating” for real estate. “Think of a credit risk check for land and property,” Orbital Witness co-founder and COO Will Pearce tells me.

To do this, the startup is employing machine learning technology that it hopes can mirror the process a lawyer goes through when gathering and checking property information. The idea is to use AI to “predetermine” issues that constitute a potential risk.

“Our technology is adept at trawling through and extracting key issues from the wide range of sources that a property lawyer considers, including HM Land Registry and local authorities,” explains Pearce. “For example, a user is alerted to third party rights, charges and restrictions that might block a sale. In our current state of product development, this allows Orbital Witness to act as an ‘early warning system’ for property lawyers”.

Zooming out further, Pearce says real estate is the world’s largest asset class, but that the process of recording and reporting on property rights has not materially changed in 150 years. This sees real estate lawyers having to manually collect and review information from an array of disparate sources, which can often take weeks to arrive before they can even start. Meanwhile, the various real estate stakeholders — from banks making lending decisions, large commercial real estate PE funds, to residential homebuyers — can’t sign off transactions until the lawyers have completed their due diligence.

“Anyone who has ever bought a home will appreciate the frustrations of dealing with this legal due diligence process, and in commercial real estate, where Orbital Witness is initially focussed, many of these problems are amplified,” says Pearce.

The longer term plan is to ingest a broader range of data, so that Orbital Witness can eventually become trusted to provide a universal risk rating for real estate. This will see its risk modelling solutions wired to also include geographic information (e.g. flood risk), privately held information that can be uploaded to the platform (e.g. rights of lights reports), and also non-legal information (e.g. financial data from public records and ratings agencies).

Adds the Orbital Witness co-founder: “Very importantly, risk in real estate is dependent on the context of a transaction. For a real estate investor purchasing a block of flats, they are interested in understanding the security of rental income derived from the leaseholds. However, a property developer transacting on the same building, may be more interested in any hidden covenants that could prevent the ability to build or redevelop the site”.