ClassPass, finally a unicorn, raises $285 million in new funding

ClassPass has today announced the close of a $285 million Series E funding round led by L Catterton and Apax Digital, with participation from existing investor Temasek. This latest round brings ClassPass’s valuation to $1 billion.

We had heard this round was in the works and today it’s been confirmed.

ClassPass launched in 2013 to give users an easier way to work out. The company partners with boutique fitness studios, letting users search through that inventory and book a class all from their smartphone. Since launch, ClassPass has implemented several different business models, trying to find the right unit economics.

In 2017, the company announced it would be introducing a credit system via virtual currency. Combined with its data around the popularity of classes, this allowed ClassPass to introduce variable pricing. Instead of users paying a monthly fee for three, five or ten classes per month, users could use their virtual ClassPass currency to sign up for classes and pay based on the demand around those classes.

With the revenue model in place and working, ClassPass has focused on growth over this past year. International growth has been a top priority, with the company now operating in 28 countries, partnering with more than 30,000 partners, including boutique studios, gyms and wellness providers.

The second area of growth has been on the business front. ClassPass introduced a corporate program that allows organizations to subsidize the employees using the product. Lanman says this differs from other corporate programs that ask the employer to subsidize each individual employee whether they use the product or not.

Thus far, ClassPass has more than 1,000 employers using the platform, including Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Google and Facebook.

Finally, ClassPass is expanding its offering with the introduction of wellness providers. Since the inception of the company, Kadakia has always envisioned ClassPass as a portal through which users can find and enjoy new experiences. The plan has always been to go beyond fitness, and wellness is the next link in the chain for ClassPass.

Kadakia said that most of the users who sign up for meditation on ClassPass (the company’s most popular wellness option) are trying it for the first time.

Here’s what she had to say in a prepared statement:

We are motivated by the impact we’ve had on members and partners, including 100 million hours of workouts that have already been booked. This investment is a significant milestone that will further our mission to help people stay active and spend their time meaningfully.

ClassPass has come a long way since 2013, iterating its business model several times. But CEO Fritz Lanman believes that ClassPass’s ability to adapt is one of its greatest strengths.

When it first launched, a ClassPass membership offered unlimited classes each month to users. Eventually, that was re-priced and a cap was introduced on the number of monthly classes users could take. This all led to the launch of virtual currency and variable pricing, which seems to be the piece that fits the puzzle.

“Change can be good,” said Lanman. “I’m not ashamed of the business model iterations we went through. It’s unclear if we would have even gotten to this credit system had we not had business models that worked at a smaller scale.”

He went on to say that some businesses won’t have a model that is perfect and will work forever, and that there are a lot of benefits to going through the process of business model iteration.

This brings ClassPass’s total funding to nearly $550 million. Future plans for the company include more geographic expansion and growing the corporate business.

Midnite raises $2.5M for its esports betting platform

Midnite, the London-based esports betting startup from the same team behind daily fantasy football app Dribble, has raised just over $2.5 million in funding. The “strategic” investment is led by gaming-focussed venture firm Makers Fund.

Previous investors in Midnite include London VC firm Venrex Investment Management, as well as unnamed “founders and executives” from leading gaming companies including Betfair and GVC. The new round brings the total raised by the 2016 founded company to around $4.5 million.

“The esports market is seeing rapid year-on-year growth and we believe that betting represents the single biggest opportunity in this space,” Midnite co-fonder Nick Wright tells TechCrunch. “Wagering on esports is expected to exceed $12bn by the end of 2020, making betting already one of the fastest growing verticals within esports”.

However, despite the size of opportunity, Wright says that for most big sports betting sites, esports is “just another tab” in their legacy sports betting offering, but that esports fans are not simply just another type of sports fan. “They are an entirely new customer category and deserve a platform tailored to them,” he says. “This is why Midnite exists”.

With that in mind, Wright pitches Midnite as an “entertainment platform” that provides an immersive experience for esports fans. He says fans get the thrill of watching, analysing, and betting on their favorite teams and players as they face off in tournaments around the world.

“What makes esports differ from other sports is the constant action and its highly dynamic nature,” says the Midnite co-founder. “This is conducive to a variety of live betting opportunities that you can seldom find in real sports. Users can bet on your standard match winners and losers, but they can also bet on unique selections such as next kill or next objective achieved while matches are in-play”.

Noteworthy, although operating in an invite-only beta, the startup has already acquired a betting license in the U.K., which Wright points out is the biggest betting market in the world.

He says this makes Midnite the only dedicated esports betting platform that accepts customers in the U.K, and that the company is focused on operating globally in jurisdictions that can legally accept customers. “[We] are acquiring additional licenses to do so,” he adds.

“In the past, betting on esports has been carried out by unregulated operators, which meant that the unregulated market was several times bigger than the regulated market. Many operators offering esports betting would not be licensed, were not taking responsible gambling seriously or even performing age verification checks. This meant customers want to bet on esports were often placing themselves at risk.

“We are creating a safe and responsible environment for these fans. Customer safety is our top priority and we are taking it very seriously. We are doing everything by the book to ensure our community is safeguarded and are compliant with all the regulations in markets where we are operational”.

Funderbeam CEO to talk about disrupting startup funding at Disrupt Berlin

Startup funding hasn’t changed much in the past decade. Funderbeam is an interesting company trying to turn everything upside down using a marketplace approach, a modern syndication system and a blockchain-based platform. I’m excited to announce that Funderbeam founder and CEO Kaidi Ruusalepp will come to TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

The first boom of venture capital of the 1980s changed everything in the tech industry. Countless of tech startups managed to get funding, grow and make money down the road. Without venture capital firms, some of the biggest tech firms out there just wouldn’t be around.

Arguably, convertible notes and accelerators turned startups into a mainstream phenomenon. It became much easier to get seed funding and some sort of mentorship.

But it hasn’t changed much since then. Funderbeam has some ambitious goals as the company wants to change everything by adding more transparency and liquidity into private funding.

Funderbeam combines multiple products into one. As a startup, you can use Funderbeam to raise your next funding round. Funderbeam acts as a marketplace so that angel investors can invest in your startup. As a business angel, you can invest in a syndicate.

The startup is also building a secondary market so that early investors in a company can sell shares to newer investors. And Funderbeam also compiles all its data on startups to create a database of financial information on startups.

Buy your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to this discussion and many others. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Kaidi Ruusalepp

Founder & CEO, Funderbeam

Founder and CEO of Funderbeam, the global funding and trading platform of private companies built on blockchain. Funderbeam combines three stages of investor journey into one: startup analytics, investing, and trading on the secondary market. Powered by blockchain technology, the marketplace delivers capital to growth companies and on-demand liquidity to investors worldwide.

Member of Startup Europe Advisory Board at European Commission. Kaidi is a former CEO of Nasdaq Tallinn Stock Exchange and of the Central Securities Depository. Co-Founder of Estonian Service Industry Association. The first IT lawyer in Estonia, she co-author of the Estonian Digital Signatures Act of 2000 — landmark legislation that enables secure digital identities and, in turn, the country’s booming electronic economy.

Kaidi was named as an Entrepreneur of a Year in 2018 by the Playmakers Technology Award and as a Person of a Year in 2016 by the Estonian IT and Telecommunication Association. Co-author of #Foundership Playbook and mentor of various girls and women in tech initiatives.

Jane VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously co-founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”

TaxScouts wants to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious

TaxScouts, a U.K. startup founded by TransferWise and Marketinvoice alumni, is the latest online service designed to make filing your tax return a lot less tedious. However, rather than focusing on the bookkeeping part of the problem primarily tackled by cloud accounting software — which is often overkill if you are self-employed or simply earn a little additional income outside of your day job — the company combines “automation” with human accountants to help you prepare your tax submission.

“Doing taxes is either tedious when you have to do them yourself, or expensive when you hire an accountant,” says TaxScouts co-founder and CEO Mart Abramov, who was employee number 8 at TransferWise and also previously worked at Intuit, MarketInvoice and Skype. “We’re automating as much of the admin part of tax preparation as possible in our online app. We then connect you with a certified accountant who will take care of the entire tax filing process for you”.

The headline draw is that TaxScouts charges a flat fee of £99 if you pay in advance, and promises a turn-around of just 24 hours. To help with this, the web app walks you through your tax status, income and expenses without assuming too much prior knowledge. This includes asking you to upload or take a photo of any required documents, such as invoices or dividend certificates. The idea is that all of the admin is captured digitally and packaged up ready for your assigned accountant to take a look.

“As more of the menial tasks are handled by our app this allows accountants to focus on what they do best and not get stuck in admin,” explains Abramov. “They can focus on providing advice and expertise to make sure everything is done right. Our customers get both the benefits of getting a personal accountant and having a simple tool to manage it all, without the huge costs”.

Abramov tells me that TaxScouts’ typical customers are anyone who wants to have their self assessment done for them or who just wants help with tax preparation. This spans self-employed people — from construction workers to professional freelancers — entrepreneurs and company directors, and people who are entitled to some kind of tax relief or refund, such as investors on crowdfunding platforms. He also said that gig economy workers are a good fit.

Moving forward, TaxScouts plans to further develop the automation functionality, including plugging into more data sources beyond its existing integration with HMRC. Abramov says this could include a driver’s Uber data for tracking mileage claims, for example, while I can immediately see how the app could integrate with various fintech offerings that capture transactions and receipts.

To that end, the startup has raised £300,000 in “pre-seed” funding to continue building out the product. Backers include Picus Capital, Charlie Delingpole (co-founder of ComplyAdvantage and MarketInvoice), and Charlie Songhurst (former GM corporate strategy at Microsoft).

Email security startup Tessian raises $13M led by Balderton and Accel

Tessian (formerly called CheckRecipient), the London-based startup that is deploying machine learning to improve email security, has raised $13 million in Series A funding. Leading the round is Balderton Capital, and existing backer Accel. A number of previous investors also followed on, including Amadeus Capital Partners, Crane, LocalGlobe, Winton Ventures, and Walking Ventures.

Founded in 2013 by three engineering graduates from Imperial College — Tim Sadler, Tom Adams and Ed Bishop — Tessian is built on the premise that humans are the weak link in company email and data security. This can either be through mistakes, such as a wrongly intended recipient, or through nefarious employee activity. By applying “machine intelligence” to monitoring company email, the startup has developed various tools to help prevent this.

Once installed on a company’s email systems, Tessian’s machine learning tech analyses an enterprise’s email networks to understand normal and abnormal email sending patterns and behaviours. It then attempts to detect anomalies in outgoing emails and warns users about potential mistakes before an email is sent. This, the startup says, makes it different to legacy rule-based technologies and that Tessian requires “no admin from security teams and no end-user behaviour change”.

One neat aspect is that Tessian can get to work retroactively, producing historical reports that show how many misaddressed emails an organisation has sent prior to the installation date. That is bound to help with sales, even if it could give an enterprise’s security team quite a shock, especially in light of recent GDPR data regulation in Europe. The new EU directive stipulates that companies must report data breaches involving personal information to their local regulator and face fines as high as 4 percent of global turnover for the worst data breaches.

In a call late last week with Tessian CEO and co-founder Tim Sadler, he told me the company plans to use the additional funding for R&D, including the launch of new product, and to expand its sales and marketing teams. Since the startup’s seed round last year, the Tessian team has grown from 13 to 50 people.

Sadler explained that Tessian is looking to apply its tech to in-bound email, in addition to its existing out-bound products. One way to think about it, he says, is that an email address is like an IP address for humans, enabling human to human networks. However, in terms of security, not only are humans an obvious weak point, acting as the gatekeeper to the network and the data that resides on it, email by design is inherently open.

To that end, Sadler tells me that next on Tessian’s roadmap is a way to make in-bound email less prone to data breaches. This will include using Tessian’s machine intelligence to identify spoofed emails or other unusual communication.

“What Tessian have done — and this is why we are so excited about them — is apply machine intelligence to understand how humans communicate with each other and use that deeper understanding to secure enterprise email networks,” says Balderton Capital Partner Suranga Chandratillake. “The genius of this approach is that while the product focus today is on email — by far the most used communication channel in the corporate enterprise — their technology can be applied to all communication channels in time. And, as we all communicate in larger volumes and on more channels, that represents a vast opportunity”.

Meanwhile, Sadler says the startup’s customers span legal, healthcare and financial services, but that any enterprise handling sensitive data are a potential fit. “World leading organisations like Schroders, Man Group and Dentons and over 70 of the UK’s leading law firms are now using platform to protect their email networks,” adds the company.

Microsoft acquires conversational AI startup Semantic Machines to help bots sound more lifelike

Microsoft announced today that it has acquired Semantic Machines, a Berkeley-based startup that wants to solve one of the biggest challenges in conversational AI: making chatbots sound more human and less like, well, bots.

In a blog post, Microsoft AI & Research chief technology officer David Ku wrote that “with the acquisition of Semantic Machines, we will establish a conversational AI center of excellence in Berkeley to push forward the boundaries of what is possible in language interfaces.”

According to Crunchbase, Semantic Machines was founded in 2014 and raised about $20.9 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst and Bain Capital Ventures.

In a 2016 profile, co-founder and chief scientist Dan Klein told TechCrunch that “today’s dialog technology is mostly orthogonal. You want a conversational system to be contextual so when you interpret a sentence things don’t stand in isolation.” By focusing on memory, Semantic Machines’ AI can produce conversations that not only answer or predict questions more accurately, but also flow naturally.

Instead of building its own consumer products, Semantic Machines focused on enterprise customers. This means it will fit in well with Microsoft’s conversational AI-based products, including Microsoft Cognitive Services and Azure Bot Service, which are used by one million and 300,000 developers, respectively, and virtual assistants Cortana and Xiaolce.

Cleveland offered $120 million in freebies lure Amazon to the city

A Cleveland.com article detailed the lengths the small midwestern city would go to lure Amazon’s in 50,000-person HQ2. In a document obtained by reporter Mark Naymik, we learn that Cleveland was ready to give over $120 million in free services to Amazon including considerably reduced fares on Cleveland-area trains and buses.

The document, available here, focuses on the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency (NOACA)’s ideas regarding the key component in many of Amazon’s decisions – transportation.

Ohio has a budding but often tendentious connection to public transport. Cities like Columbus have no light rail while Cincinnati just installed a rudimentary system. Cleveland, for its part, has a solid if underused system already in place.

That the city would offer discounts is not surprising. Cities were falling over themselves to gain what many would consider – including Amazon itself – a costly incursion on the city chosen. However, given the perceived importance of having Amazon land in a small city – including growth of the startup and tech ecosystems – you can see why Cleveland would want to give away plenty of goodies.

Ultimately the American Midwest is at a crossroads. It could go either way, with small cities growing into vibrant artistic and creative hubs or those same cities falling into further decline. And the odds are stacked against them.

The biggest city, Chicago, is a transport, finance, and logistics hub and draws talent from smaller cities that orbit it. Further, “smart” cities like Pittsburgh and Ann Arbor steal the brightest students who go on to the coasts after graduation. As Richard Florida noted, the cities with a vibrant Creative Class are often the ones that succeed in this often rigged race and many cities just can’t generate any sort of creative ecosystem – cultural or otherwise – that could support a behemoth like Amazon landing in its midst.

What Cleveland did wasn’t wrong. However, it did work hard to keep the information secret, a consideration that could be dangerous. After all, as Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn told reporters: “Our statement for HQ2 is we’ll provide whatever is necessary to Amazon when they need it. For all practical purposes, it’s a blank check.”

A Technology Port In A Market Storm

yellowumbrella Headlines in 2015 have been particularly worrisome for global investors. Yet while we see listed businesses facing a whiplash effect from China, Greece and the Middle East, the news headlines about high-growth technology businesses seemingly couldn’t be more positive. From record-breaking funding rounds in the U.K. and the U.S. and the blossoming U.K. fintech market or the growth of… Read More