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.

What to expect in digital media in 2020

As we start 2020, the media and entertainment sectors are in flux. New technologies are enabling new types of content, streaming platforms in multiple content categories are spending billions in their fight for market share and the interplay between social platforms and media is a central topic of global political debate (to put it lightly).

As TechCrunch’s media columnist, I spoke to hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives in North America and Europe last year about the shifts underway across everything from vertically-oriented video series to physics engines in games to music royalty payments. Looking toward the year ahead, here are some of the high-level changes I expect we will see in media in 2020, broken into seven categories: film & TV, gaming, visual & audio effects, social media, music, podcasts and publishing.

Film and TV

In film and television, the battle to compete with Netflix continues with more robust competition than last year. In the U.S., Disney is off to a momentous start with 10 million Disney+ subscribers upon its launch in November and some predicting it will hit 25 million by March (including those on free trials or receiving it for free via Disney’s partnership with Verizon). Bundled with its two other streaming properties, Hulu and ESPN+, Disney+ puts Disney alongside Amazon and Netflix as the Big Three.

Consumers will only pay for so many subscriptions, often one, two, or all of the Big Three (since Amazon Prime Video is included with the broader Prime membership) then a smaller service that best aligns with their personal taste and favorite show of the moment.

AT&T’s HBOMax launches in May with a $14.99/month price tag and is unlikely to break into the echelon of the Big Three, but could be a formidable second tier competitor. Alongside it will be Apple TV+. With a $4.99/month subscription, Apple’s service only includes a small number of original productions, an HBO strategy as HBO gets bundled into a larger library. CBS All Access, Showtime, and NBCUniversal’s upcoming (in April) Peacock fall in this camp as well.

Across Europe, regional media conglomerates will find success in expanding local SVOD and AVOD competitors to Netflix that launched last year — or are set to launch in the next few weeks — like BritBox in the UK, Joyn in Germany and Salto in France. Netflix’s growth in coming from outside the U.S. now so its priority is buying more international shows that will compel new demographics to subscribe.

The most interesting new development in 2020 though will be the April launch of Quibi, the $4.99/month service offering premium shows shot for mobile-first viewing that has already secured $1 billion in funding commitments and $150 million in advertising revenue. Quibi shows will be bite-size in length (less than 15 minutes) and vertically-oriented. The company has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into commissioning established names to create dozens of them. Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro each have Quibi programs and NBC and CBS are creating news shows. The terms it is offering are enticing.

Quibi, which plans to release 125 pieces of content (i.e. episodes) per week and spend $470 million on marketing this year, is an all-or-nothing bet with little room to iterate if it doesn’t get it right the first time; it needs hit shows that break into mainstream pop culture to survive. Billionaire founders Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman have set expectations sky-high for the launch; expect the press to slam it in April for failing to meet those expectations and for the platform to redeem itself as a few of its shows gain traction in the months that follow.

Meanwhile, live sports remains the last hope of broadcast TV networks as all other shows go to streaming. Consumers still value watching sports in real-time. Streaming services are coming for live sports too, however, and will make progress toward that goal in 2020. Three weeks ago, DAZN secured the rights to the 2021/22 season of Germany’s Champions League, beating out broadcaster Sky which has shown the matches for the last 20 years. Amazon and YouTube continue to explore bids for sports rights while Facebook and Twitter are stepping back from their efforts. YouTube’s “YouTube TV” and Disney’s “Hulu with Live TV” will cause more consumers to cancel cable TV subscriptions in 2020 and go streaming-only.

The winners in the film & TV sector right now are top production companies. The war for streaming video dominance driving several of the world’s wealthiest companies (and individuals) to pour tens of billions of dollars into content. Large corporations own the distribution platforms here; the only “startups” to enter with strength — DAZN and Quibi — have been launched by billionaires and started with billion-dollar spending commitments. The entrepreneurial opportunity is on the content creation side — with producers creating shows not with software developers creating platforms.

Gaming

The gaming market is predicted to grow nearly 9% year-over-year from $152 billion globally in 2019 to $165 billion in 2020, according to research firm Newzoo, with more than two billion people playing games each year. Gaming is now widespread across all demographic groups. Casual mobile games are responsible for the largest portion of this (and 45% of industry revenue) but PC gaming continues to grow (+4% last year) and console gaming was the fastest growing category last year (+13%).

The big things to watch in gaming this year: cross-platform play, greater focus on social interaction in virtual worlds and the expansion of cloud gaming subscriptions.

Fortnite enticed consumers with the benefits of a cross-platform game that allows players to move between PC, mobile and console and it is setting expectations that other games do the same. Last October we saw the Call of Duty franchise come to mobile and reach a record 100 million downloads in its first week. This trend will continue and it will spread the free-to-play business model that is the norm in mobile games to many PC and console franchises in the process.

Gaming is moving to the social forefront. Many people are turning to massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Fortnite and PUBG to socialize, with gameplay as a secondary interest. Games are virtual worlds where players socialize, build things, and own assets much like in the real world. That results in an increasingly fluid interplay between socializing in games and in physical life, much as socializing in the virtual realms of social apps like Instagram or Twitter is now viewed as part of “real world” life.

Expect VCs to bet big on the thesis that “games are the new social networks” in 2020. Large investment firms that a year ago wrote off the category of gaming as “content bets” not fit for VC are now actively hunting for deals.

On this point, there are several startups (like Klang Games, Darewise Entertainment, Singularity 6 and Clockwork Labs) that raised millions in VC funding to create open world games that will launch (in beta at least) in 2020. These are virtual worlds where all players exist in the same instance of the world rather than being capped at 100 or so players per instance. Their visions center of digital realms where people will contribute to in-game economies, create friendships and ultimately earn income just like their “real-world” lives. Think next-gen Second Life. Expect them to take time to seed their worlds with early adopters in 2020 before any of them gain mainstream traction in 2021.

Few are as excited about social interaction in games as Facebook, it seems. Eager to own critical turf in the next paradigm shift of social media, Facebook will accelerate its gaming push this year. In late 2019, it acquired Madrid-based PlayGiga — which was working on cloud gaming and 5G technology — and the studio behind the hit VR game Beat Saber. It also secured exclusive rights to the VR versions of popular games like Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell” for Oculus. Horizon, its virtual world for social interaction within VR, is expected to launch this year as well.

Facebook is betting on AR/VR as the paradigm shift in consumer computing that will replace mobile; it is pouring billions into its efforts to own the hardware and infrastructure pieces which are several years of R&D away from primetime. In the meantime, the consumer shift to social interaction in virtual worlds is occurring in established formats — mobile, PC, and console — so it will work to build the bridge for consumers from that to the future.

Lastly, cloud gaming was one of last year’s biggest headlines with the launch of Google Stadia and you should expect it to be again this year. By moving games to cloud hosting, consumers can play the highest quality games from lower quality devices, greatly expanding the market of potential players. By bundling many such games into a subscription offering, Google and others hope to entice consumers to try many more games.

As TechCrunch’s Lucas Matney argued, however, cloud gaming is likely a feature for existing subscription gaming platforms — namely Playstation Now and Xbox Game Pass — more so than the basis for a new platform to differentiate. The minor latency inherent in playing a cloud-hosted game makes it unattractive to hardcore gamers (who would rather download the game). Next to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings, Stadia’s limited game selection fails to stand out. The competition will only heat up this year with the entry of Amazon. Google needs to launch the Stadia integration with YouTube and the Share State feature that it promoted in its Stadia announcement to really drive consumer interest.

Visual and audio effects

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”.

Impossible adds ‘ground pork’ and ‘sausages’ to its lineup of plant-based foods

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Huami and Studio take on Peloton with the Amazfit HomeStudio treadmill

Chinese wearable company Huami and fitness startup Studio are teaming up to build a connected treadmill, which they unveiled today as part of Huami’s keynote as CES.

The most notable feature of the Amazfit HomeStudio is its lack of a traditional treadmill front. Instead, you control the device using your smartphone, while content is delivered to a separate, vertically-oriented 43-inch HD screen that the companies are calling the Glass.

The Glass kind of looks like a giant phone, and it also includes a camera that can analyze your movements with computer vision (if you’re worried about privacy, there’s a slide piece that covers the camera).

As for the treadmill itself, it’s 20 inches wide and 53 inches long, with a slat belt surface for a softer running feel.

Huami may be an unfamiliar name to most U.S. readers, but the company says it shipped 18.1 million wearable devices in 2017, and it went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 2018. Studio, meanwhile, has created more than 1,000 online fitness classes with a focus on treadmill running.

Studio founder and CEO Jason L. Baptiste (who previously founded mobile publishing company Onswipe) told me that with his vision of making running more fun and accessible to non-runners, he’s always seen creating a treadmill as part of Studio’s roadmap, allowing the startup to offer a fitness experience that’s truly “immersive and personal.”

Amazfit HomeStudio

And while Peloton sells a connected treadmill with a 32-inch screen, Baptiste said most treadmill makers are “manufacturing companies or devices something without great software or content or community.” He added, “We wanted to get the content and software right before we ever thought about doing anything with hardware.”

So the Amazfit HomeStudio combines Studio’s content with Huami’s hardware expertise, and it integrates with Huami devices and other wearables to track heart rate. And while a treadmill is obviously best for running, the Glass can also offers classes in sculpt, yoga and stretching.

Huami and Studio are not announcing pricing or timing, but Baptiste said the treadmill will be “an incredible value compared to competing products on the market.” (Pricing for the Peloton Tread starts at $4,295.) He also acknowledged that the real moneymaker will be the content subscription, which will cost $34.99 per month.

“At the end of 2019, Huami defined a new mission: Connect Health with Technology. STUDIO’s passion for fitness has proven to be a perfect match,” said Huami Chairman and CEO Wang Huang in a statement. “We want to bring the latest in fitness to our users, through products and services they can count on. That’s what Huami Amazfit is bringing to the new decade – cutting-edge innovation in health technology.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Lisbon finally gets a substantial VC fund in the shape of Indico Capital Partners

Lisbon, characterized occasionally by some tech scene observers as ‘the warm Berlin’, has been threatening to generate more startups in the last few years, not least because it will now have the enormous Web Summit conference there for the next 10 years, and because it’s a cheap and great place to live. But the startups appearing have not quite been as numerous as many would like.

It’s therefore fantastic to see a new VC fund appearing in the city, set up by three experienced stalwarts of the scene.

Indico Capital Partners VC has now completed its first closing of €41M out of the €46M of commitments from investors from eight different countries. The fund will be aimed at Iberian early stage startups (that means Spain and Portugal), but of course those in particularly those based out of Portugal.

The fund says it will invest typically between €150,000 and €5M per portfolio company over their lifetime – pre-seed to series A, plus follow-on rounds. They say the first Indico investments have already been concluded and will be announced soon.

It’s far and away the first sizable, independent and private early-stage, tech-focused fund to be based in Lisbon and will focus on investments in B2B SaaS, Artificial Intelligence, Fintech and Cybersecurity to Marketplaces and B2C Platforms.

The fund comprises of three partners: Managing General Partner, Stephan Morais (former head of the leading corporate VC Caixa Capital), General Partner Ricardo Torgal (also former Caixa Capital senior investor) and Venture Partner Cristina Fonseca (co-founder and shareholder of Talkdesk).

Collectively the team has in the past invested in Farfetch, Unbabel, Codacy and many other success stories originating from Portugal over the past 6 years, in addition to Talkdesk itself.

The EIF (European Investment Fund), is the cornerstone investor of Indico, and has been joined by 20 other institutional and individual investors such as the IFD (Instituição Financeira de Desenvolvimento) through the Portugal Tech facility, Draper Esprit (a major global quoted VC fund based in the UK), pension funds, education and research institutions, wealth managers, high net worth individuals and many local and international tech entrepreneurs.

The fund is supported by InnovFin Equity, with the financial backing of the European Union under Horizon 2020 Financial Instruments and the European Funds for Strategic Investments (EFSI) set up under the Investment Plan for Europe.

Stephan Morais, Managing General Partner, said: “This is a milestone for the Portuguese ecosystem, we will keep on supporting the most promising Portuguese, and increasingly Iberian, early-stage tech startups, but now with an independent stable investment platform backed by a diversified global LP base.”

Ricardo Torgal, General Partner added that “VC is not hype, it’s about building a balanced portfolio and being there for the companies to help them grow to the next stage”.

Cristina Fonseca, Venture Partner, commented that “I have been backing many companies over the past few years as an angel investor and mentor, so it was an obvious decision to join the best investment team in the market with a solid track record. Early stage tech is where my heart is and this is a local nurturing activity before it becomes globally investable and scalable.”

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.”

Apply today for Startup Battlefield Africa 2018

We’d be hard-pressed to find something we love to cover more than a rapidly evolving tech startup ecosystem. That’s one of the big reasons we’re so excited to be heading back to Africa — specifically Lagos, Nigeria — to host TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 on December 11. With more than 300 tech hubs across the continent connecting and mentoring entrepreneurs and innovators, it’s a prime time to be a startup in Africa — and the perfect time to launch your startup to the world. Apply right here, right now.

Last year, our first Startup Battlefield Africa took place in Nairobi, Kenya and featured 15 amazing startups, with one winner in three different categories. This year, we’re tweaking the format a bit, so here’s what you need to know.

Any type of tech startup may apply. Highly discerning TechCrunch editors will review the applications and choose the 15 startups they deem most likely to produce an exit or IPO. The founders of the competing teams will receive free pitch coaching from TechCrunch, and they’ll be ready to face a panel of judges (recruited by our editors), all experts in their categories.

Five startups will compete in one of three preliminary rounds where they will have six minutes to pitch and present their demo. The judges will then have six minutes to ask questions. The judges will select five of the 15 startups to pitch a second time, and from that elite group of five comes one overall winner of TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018.

In addition to an intense amount of media and investor interest, the founders of the winning startup will receive US$25,000 in no-equity cash plus a trip for two to compete in Startup Battlefield in San Francisco at our flagship event, TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 (assuming the company still qualifies to compete at the time).

Are you as excited as we are? Do you want to launch your startup to the world? Ready to submit your application? Here’s what you need to know about eligibility. Startups should:

  • Be early-stage companies in “launch” stage
  • Be headquartered in one of our eligible countries*
  • Have a fully working product/beta, reasonably close to or in production
  • Have received limited press or publicity to date
  • Have no known intellectual property conflicts

TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 takes place in Lagos, Nigeria on December 11. Does your startup have what it takes to win it all? Your destiny awaits — apply today.

*Residents in the following countries may apply:

Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cabo Verde, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Comoros, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the foregoing language, the “Applicable Countries” does not include any country to or on which the United States has embargoed goods or imposed targeted sanctions (including, but not limited to, Sudan).

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.