Salesforce leads $15M investment round in Indian HR tech platform Darwinbox

Darwinbox, which operates a cloud-based human resource management platform, has raised $15 million in a new financing round as the Indian startup looks to expand beyond the country and Southeast Asian markets.

The new round, a Series C, for the Hyderabad-based startup was led by Salesforce Ventures, the venture arm of the American software giant. This is Salesforce Ventures’ one of rare investments in India. Existing investors including Lightspeed India and Sequoia Capital India also participated in the round, which brings the five-year old startup’s total raise to date to $35 million.

Over 500 firms including — Tokopedia, Indorama, JG Summit Group, Zilingo, Zalora, Fave, Adani, Mahindra, Kotak, TVS, NSE, Ujjivan Small Finance Bank, Dr.Reddy’s, Nivea, Puma, Swiggy, Bigbasket — use Darwinbox’s HR platform to provide more than a million employees of theirs with a range of features including insurance and early salary as loans in 60 nations, up from about 200 firms across 50 nations in 2019, said Chaitanya Peddi, co-founder of Darwinbox, in an interview with TechCrunch.

Peddi said the startup has always looked up to Salesforce, and investment from the enterprise giant is “nothing sort of a child receiving validation from their father,” he said.

The fundraise caps the most successful year for the startup that started with uncertainty as the coronavirus spread across Asian nations. The startup took a hit as its customers scrambled to navigate through the global pandemic, but the last two quarters have been its best to date, said Peddi. Overall, the startup’s revenue has ballooned by 300% since September 2019, when it last raised money, he said. “In HR tech and SaaS space, we are now only behind SAP and Oracle in India in terms of revenue,” he said.

Dev Khare, a partner at Lightspeed India, said that Darwinbox has become the preferred human capital management solution for Asian conglomerates, governments, and high-growth businesses and multi-national corporations operating in Asia as they witness digital transformation.

Image Credits: Darwinbox

Darwinbox’s platform is built to take care of the entire “hiring to retiring” cycle needs for employees. It handles onboarding of new hires, keeps a tap on their performance, monitors attrition rate, and provides an ongoing feedback loop.

It also provides its customers with a social network for their employees to remain connected with one another and an AI assistant to apply for a leave or set up meetings with quick voice commands from their phones.

Peddi said the startup will deploy the fresh capital to expand to several more countries, especially in more emerging markets in the Middle East Asia and Africa, and broaden its offerings. “We will be leveraging the power of our platform to do a lot more. We are a product-led firm and our focus will remain on innovation in that space,” he said. The startup is also open to exploring opportunities to acquire smaller firms for inorganic growth, he said.

“India is home to one of the world’s youngest population, and by 2050, it is expected to account for over 18% of the global working age population,” said Arundhati Bhattacharya, Chairperson and CEO, Salesforce India, in a statement. “This makes technology platforms like Darwinbox, that focuses on workforces, incredibly important. I’m proud that Salesforce is supporting Darwinbox on their journey as they continue to grow and innovate in this space.”

Alex Kayyal, partner and head of international at Salesforce Ventures, told TechCrunch in an interview that the firm helps its partners in a number of ways, including exposing them to the firm’s customers, executives and their networks, and helping startups scale their business. “We have one of the most innovative and disruptive customer bases that are looking for cloud solutions and digital transformation. So the opportunity to expose companies like Darwinbox to our customer base is something we get really excited about,” said Kayyal, adding that the firm is exploring several more deals in India.

Singapore-based Volopay raises $2.1 million seed round to build a “financial control center” for businesses

Volopay, a Singapore-based startup building a “financial control center” for businesses, announced today it has raised $2.1 million in seed funding. The round was led by Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen, and included participation from Soma Capital, CP Ventures, Y Combinator, VentureSouq, the founders of Razorpay and other angel investors.

The funding will be used on hiring, product development, strategic partnerships and Volopay’s international expansion. It plans to launch operations in Australia later this month. The company currently has about 100 clients, including Smart Karma, Dathena, Medline, Sensorflow and Beam.

Launched in 2019 by Rajith Shaiji and Rajesh Raikwar, Volopay took part in Y Combinator’s accelerator program last year. It was created after chief executive officer Shaji, who worked for several fintech companies before launching Volopay, became frustrated by the process of reconciling business expenses, especially with accounting departments located in different countries. Shaiji and Raikwar also saw that many companies, especially startups and SMEs, struggled to track different kinds of spending, including subscriptions and vendor payments.

Most of Volopay’s clients are in the tech sector and have about 15 to 150 employees. Volopay’s platform integrates multi-currency corporate cards (issued by VISA Corporate), domestic and international bank transfers, automated payments and expense and accounting software, allowing companies to save money on foreign exchange fees and reconcile expenses more quickly.

In order to speed up its development, Volopay integrated Airwallex’s APIs. Its corporate cards offer up to 2% cashback on software subscriptions, hosting and international travel, which Volopay says are the three top expense categories for tech companies, and it in November 2020, it launched a credit facility for corporate cards to help give SMEs more liquidity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Compared to traditional credit products, like credit cards and working capital loans, Shaji said Volopay’s credit facility, which is also issued by VISA Corporate, has a more competitive fixed-free pricing structure that depends on the level of credit used. This means companies know how much they owe in advance, which in turn helps them manage their cashflows more easily. The average credit line provided by Volopay is about $30,000.

Since TechCrunch last covered Volopay in July 2020, it has grown 70% month on month in terms of total funds flowing through its platform, Shaji said. It also launched two new features: a bill pay feature that allows clients to transfer money domestically and internationally with low foreign exchange rates and transaction fees, and the credit facility. The bill pay feature now contributes about 40% to Volopay’s total payment volume, while the credit product makes up 30% of its card spending.

Shaji told TechCrunch that Volopay decided to expand into Australia because because not only is it a much larger market than Singapore, but “SMEs in Australia are very comfortable using paid digital software to streamline internal operations and scale their businesses.” He added that there is currently no other provider in Australia that offers both expense management and credit to SMEs like Volopay.

Gillmor Gang: Twitter+

The best thing about 2020 is we survived it. No need to say what the worst thing is, it’s hands down our collective stupidity in the choices we’ve made. That reality has forced us to refactor what we do moving forward.

If we had correctly understood the massive changes ahead, we would not be wondering when we will return to the old, new, or any normal. The normal is what got us here. Unlimited air travel, freedom to do whatever we wanted without regard to the impact it would have on anybody else. Nationalism. What the hell is that all about? Keeping us in, everybody else out.

Take Twitter for one. When it first emerged, it felt like a pipe dream realized. For me, it still feels that way. Good people like it, so do bad people. Bad as in they use the global network to inflict damage on their political enemies. Does that mean the phone is a bad thing, too? Or cars, or popcorn butter? What about dramas? They’re sad, reward winners and losers? Do I wish Hollywood was only allowed to make romcoms? Well, yes I do.

But only if it doesn’t abridge my rights, my freedom to pursue happiness. So when I see Twitter turn into a cesspool, I look for someone to blame. Let’s start with the bad guys. But what if they have a point about something? Their motives may be suspect, or just plain evil. What am I doing reading them anyway. It’s not like I chose them to follow. Well, apparently I did, by listening to people who retweet what these folks spew.

Retweets are another one of these things I love about Twitter. Let’s say I follow someone whose perspective I admire, and they in turn retweet others who they admire. A social cloud forms with interesting characteristics. Implicitly, the pattern of retweets, @mentions, and likes can be plugged into readers or aggregators to reflect trends, emerging news, business analytics, and social dynamics of power, ethics, humor, and stature.

So it’s not like a follow of the bad actors, but it is like I follow their relative position in the stream of those I follow. I can and do rationalize this monitoring of other than the chosen social group as a necessary early warning system for trouble ahead. These signals can be used prophylactically to measure how our message is carrying, but a typical impact is to pigeonhole our views as fodder for those who wish us ill.

Net net, this countervailing energy reduces the sense of fun I have with the global network. If I had to choose no Twitter over this problem, I still choose Twitter. In the early days of social media, I had a front row seat in observing how these little signals could have a surprising impact on the concerns of the day, on the projection of ideas around the network to and with others who together built support, and sometimes, business through the collective group mind.

Has this been lost in the partisan nature of our daily political noise? Of course, just try saying anything about anything and watch the nasty trolls rev up their schtick. Not fun. Also not effective, because the pushback creates a new rhythm of Pee Wee Herman yeah-but-what-am-I dynamics. What to do? How about a @botmention that argues with tagged trolls but silently removes the noise from the feeds of those who @like the @bot tag.

Implementing this semi-public stream is already doable inside a private network, with the “cost” of joining the agreement to provide access to an internal view that makes the stream less noisy and more responsive. We’ve been experimenting with just such a private/public backchannel to support production of the Gillmor Gang, but I’m not here to promote that. More usefully, the network functions efficiently in concert with Twitter.

The events of 2020, and the years leading up to the election and pandemic breakout, make clear that the kind of social media spread we have seen has consequences we should have countered but in fact exacerbated. Yet even in the volatile wind down of the election are some signs of a rebound from playing the chaos card. Whatever you think of Twitter’s history of or lack of backbone development, Jack Dorsey’s red line in the sand was a much needed call to arms against Trump’s bullying.

Even if the actual technology was limited in effect, the application of any pushback at all was a signal of what the world might look like if the election went the other way. The first amplification of that subtle shift came from social media’s biggest customer, mainstream media: pointed pushback in White House press conferences, silent movie montages of Republican senators refusing to answer shouted hallway questions, networks cutting away from events when the falsehood level reached fake mass.

Mitch McConnell’s move to tie additional stimulus help to Trump’s attempt to punish Twitter by repealing Section 230 protection proved effective in running out the clock. It also moved the ball from Trump’s control to the hard numbers of January 20. The Georgia runoff on January 5, followed the next day by the attempt to challenge the electoral college Biden win and the storming of the Capitol, changed everything. Twitter became Trump’s last super power. Note: this edition of the Gang was recorded minutes before Twitter permanently suspended the @realDonaldTrump account.

Well, there is Zoom too. Its swappable background feature lets the ex-resident broadcast to the faithful as though nothing has changed. That’s why he came back from vacation early, to pre-pardon his production staff and hire a shadow cabinet. Secretary of Streaming, Chief Acting Legal Officer, Secretary of Horror Stephen Miller, Secretary of Bacteria Giuliani.

Zoom lets you do this behind a subscription paywall, but now Trump+ is competing against Disney+, Netflix, Apple+, and the bundles designed to lock-in the market until the vaccines take root. Or how about an ACA+ bundle that gives you pre-existing coverage, the latest iPhone, and any three + networks on a rotating basis to encourage competition for stream retention.

from the Gillmor Gang Newsletter

__________________

The Gillmor Gang — Frank Radice, Michael Markman, Keith Teare, Denis Pombriant, Brent Leary and Steve Gillmor. Recorded live Friday, January 8, 2021.

Produced and directed by Tina Chase Gillmor @tinagillmor

@fradice, @mickeleh, @denispombriant, @kteare, @brentleary, @stevegillmor, @gillmorgang

Subscribe to the Gillmor Gang Newsletter and join the backchannel here on Telegram.

The Gillmor Gang on Facebook … and here’s our sister show G3 on Facebook.

Cryptocat author gets insanely fast backing to build P2P tech for social media

The idea for Capsule started with a tweet about reinventing social media.

A day later cryptography researcher, Nadim Kobeissi — best known for authoring the open-source E2E-encrypted desktop chat app Cryptocat (now discontinued) — had pulled in a pre-seed investment of $100,000 for his lightweight mesh-networked microservices concept, with support coming from angel investor and former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, William J. Pulte and Wamda Capital.

The nascent startup has a post-money valuation on paper of $10 million, according to Kobeissi, who is working on the prototype — hoping to launch an MVP of Capsule in March (as a web app), after which he intends to raise a seed round (targeting $1 million-$1.5 million) to build out a team and start developing mobile apps.

For now there’s nothing to see beyond Capsule’s landing page and a pitch deck (which he shared with TechCrunch for review). But Kobeissi says he was startled by the level of interest in the concept.

“I posted that tweet and the expectation that I had was that basically 60 people max would retweet it and then maybe I’ll set up a Kickstarter,” he tells us. Instead the tweet “just completely exploded” and he found himself raising $100,000 “in a single day” — with $50,000 paid in there and then.

“I’m not a startup guy. I’ve been running a business based on consulting and based on academic R&D services,” he continues. “But by the end of the day — last Sunday, eight days ago — I was running a Delaware corporation valued at $10 million with $100,000 in pre-seed funding, which is insane. Completely insane.”

Capsule is just the latest contender for retooling Internet power structures by building infrastructure that radically decentralizes social platforms to make speech more resilient to corporate censorship and control.

The list of decentralized/P2P/federated protocols and standards already out there is very long — even while usage remains low. Extant examples include ActivityPub, Diaspora, Mastodon, P2P Matrix, Scuttlebutt, Solid and Urbit, to name a few.

Interest in the space has been rekindled in recent weeks after mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter took decisions to shut down U.S. President Donald Trump’s access to their megaphones — a demonstration of private power that other political leaders have described as problematic

Kobeissi also takes that view, while adding the caveat that he’s not “personally” concerned about Trump’s deplatforming. But he says he is concerned about giant private corporations having unilateral power to shape internet speech — whether takedown decisions are being made by Twitter’s trust and safety lead or Amazon Web Services (which recently yanked the plug on right-wing social network Parler for failing to moderate violent views).

He also points to a lawsuit that’s been filed in U.S. court seeking damages and injunctive relief from Apple for allowing Telegram, a messaging platform with 500 million+ users, to be made available through its iOS App Store — “despite Apple’s knowledge that Telegram is being used to intimidate, threaten and coerce members of the public” — raising concerns about “the odds of these efforts catching on.”

“That is kind of terrifying,” he suggests.

Capsule would seek to route around the risk of mass deplatforming via “easy to deploy” P2P microservices — starting with a forthcoming web app.

“When you deploy Capsule right now — I have a prototype that does almost nothing running — it’s basically one binary. And you get that binary and you deploy it and you run it, and that’s it. It sets up a server, it contacts Let’s Encrypt, it gets you a certificate, it uses SQLite for the database, which is a serverless database, all of the assets for the web server are within the binary,” he says, walking through the “really nice technical idea” that snagged $100,000 in pre-seed backing insanely fast.

“There are no other files — and then once you have it running, in that folder when you set up your capsule server, it’s just the Capsule program and a Capsule database that is a file. And that’s it. And that is so self-contained that it’s embeddable everywhere, that’s migratable — and it’s really quite impossible to get this level of simplicity and elegance so quickly unless you go this route. Then, for the mesh federation thing, we’re just doing HTTPS calls and then having decentralized caching of the databases and so on.”

Among the Twitter back-and-forth about how (or whether) Kobeissi’s concept differs to various other decentralized protocols, someone posted a link to this XKCD cartoon — which lampoons the techie quest to resolve competing standards by proposing a tech that covers all use cases (yet is of course doomed to increase complexity by +1). So given how many protocols already offer self-hosted/P2P social media services it seems fair to ask what’s different here — and, indeed, why build another open decentralized standard?

Kobeissi argues that existing options for decentralizing social media are either: (a) not fully P2P (Mastodon is “self-hosted but not decentralized,” per a competitive analysis on Capsule’s pitch deck, ergo its servers are “vulnerable to Parler-style AWS takedowns”); or (b) not focused enough on the specific use case of social media (some other decentralized protocols like Matrix aim to support many more features/apps than social media and therefore can’t be as lightweight is the argument); or (c) simply aren’t easy enough to use to be more than a niche geeky option.

He talks about Capsule having the same level of focus on social media as Signal does on private messaging, for example — albeit intending it to support both short-form “tweet”-style public posts and long-form Medium-style postings. But he’s vocal about not wanting any “bloat.”

He also invokes Apple’s “design for usability” philosophy. Albeit, it’s a lot easier to say you want to design something that “just works” versus actually pulling off effortless mainstream accessibility. But that’s the bar Kobeissi is setting himself here.

“I always imagine Glenn Greenwald when I think of my user,” he says on the usability point, referring to the outspoken journalist and Intercept co-founder who recently left to launch his own newsletter-based offering on Substack. “He’s the person I see setting this up. Basically the way that this would work is he’d be able to set this up or get someone to set it up really easily — I think Capsule is going to offer automated deployments as also a way to make revenue, by the way, i.e., for a bit extra we deploy the server for you and then you’re self-hosting but we also make a margin off of that — but it’s going to be open source, you can set it up yourself as well and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not going to be hindered at all in that sense.

“In the case of Capsule, each content creator has their own website — has their own address, like Capsule.Greenwald.com — and then people go there and their first discovery of the mesh is through people that they’re interested in hearing from.”

Individual Capsules would be decentralized from the risk of platform-level censorship since they’d be beyond the reach of takedowns by a single centralizing entity. Although they would still be hosted on the web — and therefore could be subject to a takedown by their own web host. That means illegal speech on Capsule could still be removed. However there wouldn’t be a universal host that could be hit up with the risk of a whole platform being taken down at a sweep — as Parler just was by AWS.

“For every takedown it is entirely between that Capsule user and their hosting provider,” says Kobeissi. “Capsule users are going to have different hosting providers that they’re able to choose and then every time that there is a takedown it is going to be a decision that is made by a different entity. And with a different — perhaps — judgement, so there isn’t this centralized focus where only Amazon Web Services decides who gets to speak or only Twitter decides.”

And while the business of web hosting at platform giant level involves just a handful of cloud hosting giants able to offer the required scalability, he argues that that censorship-prone market concentration goes away once you’re dealing with scores of descentralized social media instances.   

“We have the big hosting providers — like AWS, Azure, Google Cloud — but aside from that we have a lot of tiny hosting providers or small businesses … Sure if you’re running a big business you do get to focus on these big providers because they allow you to have these insane servers that are very powerful and deployable very easily but if you’re running a Capsule instance, as a matter of fact, the server resource requirements of running a Capsule instance are generally speaking quite small. In most instances tiny.”

Content would also be harder to scrub from Capsule because the mesh infrastructure would mean posts get mirrored across the network by the poster’s own followers (assuming they have any). So, for example, reposts wouldn’t just vanish the moment the original poster’s account was taken down by their hosting provider.

Separate takedown requests would likely be needed to scrub each reposted instance, adding a lot more friction to the business of content moderation versus the unilateral takedowns that platform giants can rain down now. The aim is to “spare the rest of the community from the danger of being silenced,” as Kobeissi puts it.

Trump’s deplatforming does seem to have triggered a major penny-dropping moment for some that allowing a handful of corporate giants to own and operate centralized mass communication machines isn’t exactly healthy for democratic societies as this unilateral control of infrastructure gives them the power to limit speech. (As, indeed, their content-sorting algorithms determine reach and set the agenda of much public debate.)

Current social media infrastructure also provides a few mainstream chokepoints for governments to lean on — amplifying the risk of state censorship.

With concerns growing over the implications of platform power on data flows — and judging by how quickly Kobeissi’s tweet turned heads — we could be on the cusp of an investor-funded scramble to retool internet infrastructure to redefine where power (and data) lies.

It’s certainly interesting to note that Twitter recently reupped its own decentralized social media open standard push, Bluesky, for example. It obviously wouldn’t want to be left behind any such shift.

“It seems to really have blown up,” Kobeissi adds, returning to his week-old Capsule concept. “I thought when I tweeted that I was maybe the only person who cared. I guess I live in France so I’m not really in tune with what’s going on in the U.S. a lot — but a lot of people care.”

“I am not like a cypherpunk-style person these days, I’m not for full anonymity or full unaccountability online by any stretch,” he adds. “And if this is abused then sincerely it might even be the case that we would encourage — have a guidelines page — for hosting providers like on how to deal with instances of someone hosting an abusive Capsule instance. We do want that accountability to exist. We are not like a full-on, crazy town ‘free speech’ wild west thing. We just think that that accountability has to be organic and decentralized — just as originally intended with the internet.”

The Station: CES trends and Uber plots another spinoff

The Station is a weekly newsletter dedicated to all things transportation. Sign up here — just click The Station — to receive it every weekend in your inbox.

Hi friends and new readers, welcome back to The Station, a newsletter dedicated to all the present and future ways people and packages move from Point A to Point B.

Before I launch into the news of the week, let’s take care of some housekeeping. First, you might have noticed that The Station landed in your email inbox on Sunday, not Saturday.

I have received some feedback that suggests the newsletter is typically read on Sundays. Do you have an alternate view? Please reach out with your opinion on this matter.

When would you like to see The Station? And what do you like and dislike about the newsletter?

One last item: I am now transportation editor at TechCrunch. The title change comes with more responsibility and a mission. I’ll be bringing on more freelancers to expand our “future of transportation” coverage. Mark Harris, an investigative reporter who has already delivered some wonderful articles for us, will be a more regular fixture here. Harris has a knack for rooting out news tucked inside legal documents and filings such as his Tesla tariffs article in 2019 and insights into the passenger capability of Elon Musk’s Las Vegas Loop project.

I hope to add more faces to the transportation bureau in the weeks and months to come.

Email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, criticisms, offer up opinions or tips. You can also send a direct message to me at Twitter — @kirstenkorosec.

CES roundup

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Mercedes-EQ. MBUX Hyperscreen

Maybe it was the virtual format, but autonomous vehicle technology didn’t play a starring role at CES this year as it has in the past.

Instead, several other themes emerged at CES, mostly around infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems. And continuing a trend in 2020, there were several gigantic screens, including the Mercedes Hyperscreen that is pictured below.

Pioneer, Harman and Panasonic all revealed future products aimed at bringing more audio and visual technology into the vehicle. Harman, for instance, unveiled three new “experience concepts,” that can turn the infotainment system in a vehicle into a concert hall, recording studio or gaming center.

Panasonic also announced a partnership with UK startup Envisics to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs. Head-up displays, or HUDs, seemed to be everywhere this show. The technology isn’t new. But recent advances are pushing the capabilities of these systems, which are integrated in the dash of a vehicle and project images onto the windshield to aid drivers with navigation and provide other alerts.

Envisics Navigation

Image Credits: Envisics

GM had perhaps the biggest presence at the virtual 2021 CES, at least within the transportation sector. The automaker chose the tech trade show to announce a new business unit called BrightDrop that will focus on electric vans and other products and services for the commercial market. But that wasn’t all.

GM used the opportunity to tease its upcoming Chevrolet Bolt EUV — a vehicle that will have GM’s hands-free highway driving assist technology known as Super Cruise — as well as the Cadillac Celestiq dashboard and even a new logo. The intent of this bouquet of announcements was clear: GM wants the world — and shareholders — to know it’s serious about electrification and connected car tech.

GM’s numerous announcements were hard to miss — there was even an eVTOL. Conversely, Mobileye’s announcements flew a bit under the radar, but are arguably as notable. 

GM showed off two concepts at CES 2021: an autonomous shuttle and a personal eVTOL.

Mobileye outlined plans to expand its autonomous vehicles testing to more cities, which was expected and is in line with the company’s previously stated plans.

What stood out to me was a talk that Mobileye president and CEO Amnon Shashua gave which outlined the company’s vision and progress.

The recap: Mobileye is taking a three-pronged strategy to developing and deploying automated vehicle technology that combines a full self-driving stack — that includes redundant sensing subsystems based on camera, radar and lidar technology— with its REM mapping system and a rules-based Responsibility-Sensitive Safety (RSS) driving policy.

Mobileye’s REM mapping system essentially crowdsources data by tapping into nearly 1 million vehicles equipped with its tech to build high-definition maps that can be used to support in ADAS and autonomous driving systems. Shashua said Mobileye’s technology can now map the world automatically with nearly 8 million kilometers tracked daily and nearly 1 billion kilometers completed to date.

The company provided more details at CES about a new lidar System on Chip product that is under development and will come to market in 2025. The lidar, which will use Intel’s specialized silicon photonics fab, is notable because Mobileye is known for its camera-based technology. To be clear, Mobileye is not backing away from that camera-first approach. Shashua explained Mobileye believes the best technological and business approach is to develop a camera-first system and use the lidar and radar as add-ons for redundancy.

In short: Mobileye has the money and existing network to commercialize automated vehicle technology and bring it to the masses.

Below is sampling of our transportation-related CES coverage:

Mercedes unveils Hyperscreen, a 56-inch screen for its flagship EQS electric vehicle

GM targets delivery with new EV business unit BrightDrop

Mobileye is bringing its autonomous vehicle test fleets to at least four more cities in 2021

Sony reveal more details on its secretive Vision S sedan

Holographic startup Envisics partners with Panasonic to fast track in-car AR tech

Startups look beyond lidar for autonomous vehicle perception

BMW previews its next-generation iDrive infotainment system

Sono Motor plans to license the tech that powers it solar electric car

Air taxi startup Archer partners with FCA

Another Uber spinoff is in the works

POSTMATES OUSTER 1

Postmates’ Serve robot is equipped with cameras as well as lidar from Ouster.

Remember when I predicted that autonomous delivery would gain momentum in 2021? It seems that sometimes I am right!

Postmates X, the robotics division of the on-demand delivery startup that Uber acquired last year for $2.65 billion, is seeking investors in its bid to become a separate company called Serve Robotics.

You might recall Serve, the yellow and black-emblazoned autonomous sidewalk delivery bot that was developed and piloted by Postmates X. This robot, which recently partnered with Pink Dot Stores for deliveries in West Hollywood, will likely be the centerpiece of the new startup.

I learned of a few important details of this plan, which is not yet settled. Uber will maintain a stake in this new startup. Uber’s stake was initially low, but has since popped to about 25%, according to sources familiar with the deal.

The company would be run by Ali Kashani, who heads up Postmates X and leads the Serve program. Anthony Armenta would lead the startup’s software efforts and Aaron Leiba would be in charge of hardware — keeping the same positions they hold at Postmates X.

I’ll fill y’all in with more details as I learn them.

Calling Bucharest VCs: Be featured in The Great TechCrunch Survey of European VC

TechCrunch is embarking on a major project to survey the venture capital investors of Europe, and their cities.

Our <a href=”https://forms.gle/k4Ji2Ch7zdrn7o2p6”>survey of VCs in Bucharest and Romania will capture how the country is faring, and what changes are being wrought amongst investors by the coronavirus pandemic.

We’d like to know how Romania’s startup scene is evolving, how the tech sector is being impacted by COVID-19, and, generally, how your thinking will evolve from here.

Our survey will only be about investors, and only the contributions of VC investors will be included. More than one partner is welcome to fill out the survey. (Please note, if you have filled the survey out already, there is no need to do it again).

The shortlist of questions will require only brief responses, but the more you can add, the better.

You can fill out the survey here.

The deadline is January 22, 2021.

Obviously, investors who contribute will be featured in the final surveys, with links to their companies and profiles.

What kinds of things do we want to know? Questions include: Which trends are you most excited by? What startup do you wish someone would create? Where are the overlooked opportunities? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general? How is your local ecosystem going? And how has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?

This survey is part of a broader series of surveys we’re doing to help founders find the right investors.

https://techcrunch.com/extra-crunch/investor-surveys/

For example, here is the recent survey of London.

You are not in Romania, but would like to take part? That’s fine! Any European VC investor can STILL fill out the survey, as we probably will be putting a call out to your country next anyway! And we will use the data for future surveys on vertical topics.

The survey is covering almost every country on in the Union for the Mediterranean, so just look for your country and city on the survey and please participate (if you’re a venture capital investor).

Thank you for participating. If you have questions you can email mike@techcrunch.com

(Please note: Filling out the survey is not a guarantee of inclusion in the final published piece).

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

Last week, Procter & Gamble (P&G) announced that it was terminating plans to acquire razor startup Billie following a U.S. Federal Trade Commission lawsuit to stop the deal.

Last year, Edgewell Personal Care ditched its debt-heavy $1.37 billion deal for Harry’s, Inc, formerly valued at $1 billion after the FTC sought to block the acquisition.

In addition to these FTC challenges, it is also now becoming clear that relying on VC-subsidized products and celebrating outrageous valuations can be problematic for D2C brands. With a few wonderful and rare exceptions such as Rothy’s (which raised $42 million but was profitable from the beginning and generated $140 million in revenue within two years of launching), D2C unicorns are addicted to the cycle of venture funding to feed growth in order to maintain a high valuation multiple.

The path to profitability has become a more important part of the startup story versus growth at all costs.

This works for a while; however, when the path to profitability appears murky and exit options either don’t appear or only appear from nontech companies with very conservative multiples, the walls start crumbling.

In a WWD article, Odile Roujol, the former CEO of Lancôme who launched venture fund FAB Ventures, said, “Generally speaking, the era of $1 billion valuations for beauty companies is over. The people that struggle have been the companies that spend so much money in just a few years.” She went on to say, “The big corporations now … are not ready to spend $1.2 billion, $1.5 billion on such a brand like Glossier.”

This change in sentiment from acquirers is further fueled by recent research on the challenges of turning hypergrowth companies profitable. In his Harvard Business School case study “Direct to Consumer Brands,” Professor Sunil Gupta wrote, “Acquiring DTC brands is easy for incumbent conglomerates, but making them profitable is challenging. More than three years after Unilever acquired Dollar Shave Club, it was still unprofitable.”

Unilever executives learned that the average cost of acquiring a new customer online was about the same as in stores. David Taylor, CEO of P&G, said his company was still figuring out how to turn recently acquired direct-to-consumer brands into profitable businesses.

Taylor summarized this dilemma, saying, “There are many, many launches that grow fast … a business model that makes money is a higher challenge.” Since making these realizations, incumbent conglomerates will be more cautious when considering the acquisition of hyped D2C brands that raised lots of venture capital.

Beauty tech is a better bet: Meitu and Perfect Corp.

What’s cooler than beauty companies that are (or were) valued at $1 billion? Beauty tech SaaS companies that are worth $5.2 billion at IPO. We don’t hear much about the leading global beauty tech companies such as Meitu and Perfect Corp. because their founders are not celebrity influencers, they don’t have massive Instagram followings here in the U.S. and they are not celebrated in our media. Although their companies are based in Asia and they raised money mostly from Chinese investors, their companies are global successes.

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

Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.

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

He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”

That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.

“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”

In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?

Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.

From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.

There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.

The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.

The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.

Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.

No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.

I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.

So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?

For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.

But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.

People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?

So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.

It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.

Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.

Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.

Is it Time to Rethink Your Analytics Strategy?

Advertising Feature As a product person, you know the value of analytics. Done right, these tools can enable your application to unlock a whole host of benefits for both you and users, especially when it is embedded. However, analytics can present certain constraints if you approach it as just an add-on. Its ability to become [...]

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Watch Virgin Orbit launch a rocket to space from a modified 747 for the first time

Virgin Orbit scored a major success on Sunday, with a test flight that not only achieved its goals of reaching space and orbit, but also of delivering payloads on board for NASA, marking its first commercial mission, too. The launch was a success in every possible regard, which puts Virgin Orbit on track to becoming an active launch provider for small payloads for both commercial and defense customers.

Above, you can watch the actual launch itself – the moment the LauncherOne rocket detaches from ‘Cosmic Girl,’ a modified Boeing 747 airliner that takes off normally from a standard aircraft runway, and then climbs to a cruising altitude to release the rocket, which then ignites its own engines and flies the rest of the way to space. Virgin Orbit’s launch model was designed to reduce the barriers to carrying small payloads to orbit vs. traditional vertical take-off vehicles, and this successful test flight proves the model works.

Virgin Orbit now joins a small but growing group of private launch companies who have actually reached space, and made it to orbit. That should be great news for the small satellite launch market, which still has much more demand than there is supply. Virgin Orbit also offers something very different from current launch providers like SpaceX, which typically serves larger payloads or which must offer rideshare model missions for those with smaller spacecraft. The LauncherOne design potentially means more on-demand, response and quick-turnaround launch services for satellite operators.