Facebook rolls out vaccine finder tool in India, donates $10 million

Facebook has announced a $10 million grant to support emergency response efforts in India and has rolled out its Vaccine Finder tool in the country as the South Asian nation grapples with the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The American social network said that it has partnered with a number of organizations including United Way, Swasth, Hemkunt Foundation, I Am Gurgaon, Project Mumbai and US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) to help augment critical medical supplies with over 5,000 oxygen concentrators and other life-saving equipments such as ventilators, BiPAP machines and to increase hospital bed capacity.

Facebook also said it has partnered with the Government of India to roll out a Vaccine Finder tool on the company’s marquee app. The tool, available in 17 languages, is designed to help people identify and spot vaccine centres in their vicinity.

Last week, India opened vaccination to people aged between 18 to 45, though its website quickly crashed and wasn’t immediately accepting appointment requests from most people in that age group.

Also worth checking out: Folks over at WiFi Dabba, a Bangalore-based startup that is working to build a low-cost ISP, have also developed a tool to help people easily find vaccination slots.

A bigger challenge confronting India currently, however, is the shortage of vaccine.

Facebook said it is also supporting non-government organizations and United Nation agencies in India with ad credits to reach the majority of people on Facebook with Covid-19 vaccine and preventive health information.

Additionally, the company said it is providing health resources to people from UNICEF India about when to seek emergency care and how to manage mild Covid-19 symptoms at home.

Scores of firms, startups, entrepreneurs, and investors have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to help India, the world’s second most populous country, fight the pandemic after the federal and state governments were caught ill-prepared to handle it.

On Monday, Pfizer said it was sending medicines worth $70 million to India. “We are committed to being a partner in India’s fight against this disease and are quickly working to mobilize the largest humanitarian relief effort in our company’s history,” said company’s chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla.

India’s entrepreneurs and investors are mobilizing to help the nation fight COVID-19 — and you can too

At a time when much of the world has asserted great control over containing the spread of the coronavirus, with countries increasingly vaccinating its citizens, a different story is playing out in India, the world’s second-most populous nation.

For a week straight, India has reported more than 300,000 daily new infections, about half of all the cases across the globe, despite cutting down on testing in some states and underreporting deaths.

Hospitals have ran out of beds for new patients, and doctors are consistently pleading on social media, often tagging Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for essential medical supplies such as oxygen.

With several major industries, including film and sports, going about their lives pretending there is no crisis, entrepreneurs and startups have emerged as a rare beam of hope in recent days, springing to action to help the nation navigate its darkest hours.

It’s a refreshing change from last year, when thousands of Indian startups themselves were struggling to survive. And while some startups are still severely disrupted, offering a helping hand to the nation has become the priority for most.

Hundreds of startup entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, if not more, are spending much of their time trying to build software to find ways to make it easier for people to track new updates and make donations to foundations, and are exploring and funding ideas that have the potential to address some of the challenges surrounding the crisis.

Two organizations rising to the occasion include:

ACT Grants, which is run by nearly all active venture funds and PE firms, in addition to dozens of other volunteers. The initiative is the collective group’s continuing effort from last year.

Zomato Feeding India: India’s largest food delivery startup is helping patients and hospitals with oxygen and other crucial supplies.

Additional resources and efforts:

Kry closes $312M Series D after use of its telehealth tools grows 100% yoy

Swedish digital health startup Kry, which offers a telehealth service (and software tools) to connect clinicians with patients for remote consultations, last raised just before the pandemic hit in Western Europe, netting a €140M Series C in January 2020.

Today it’s announcing an oversubscribed sequel: The Series D raise clocks in at $312M (€262M) and will be used to keep stepping on the growth gas in the region.

Investors in this latest round for the 2015-founded startup are a mix of old and new backers: The Series D is led by CPP Investments (aka, the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board) and Fidelity Management & Research LLC, with participation from existing investors including The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, as well as European-based VC firms Index Ventures, Accel, Creandum and Project A.

The need for people to socially distance during the coronavirus pandemic has given obvious uplift to the telehealth category, accelerating the rate of adoption of digital health tools that enable remote consultations by both patients and clinicians. Kry quickly stepped in to offer a free service for doctors to conduct web-based consultations last year, saying at the time that it felt a huge responsibility to help.

That agility in a time of public health crisis has clearly paid off. Kry’s year-over-year growth in 2020 was 100% — meaning that the ~1.6M digital doctors appointments it had served up a year ago now exceed 3M. Some 6,000 clinicians are also now using its telehealth platform and software tools. (It doesn’t break out registered patient numbers).

Yet co-founder and CEO, Johannes Schildt, says that, in some ways, it’s been a rather quiet 12 months for healthcare demand.

Sure the pandemic has driven specific demand, related to COVID-19 — including around testing for the disease (a service Kry offers in some of its markets) — but he says national lockdowns and coronavirus concerns have also dampened some of the usual demand for healthcare. So he’s confident that the 100% growth rate Kry has seen amid the COVID-19 public health crisis is just a taster of what’s to come — as healthcare provision shifts toward more digital delivery.

“Obviously we have been on the right side of a global pandemic. And if you look back the mega trend was obviously there long before the pandemic but the pandemic has accelerated the trend and it has served us and the industry well in terms of anchoring what we do. It’s now very well anchored across the globe — that telemedicine and digital healthcare is a crucial part of the healthcare systems moving forward,” Schildt tells TechCrunch.

“Demand has been increasing during the year, most obviously, but if you look at the broader picture of healthcare delivery — in most European markets — you actually have healthcare usage at an all time low. Because a lot of people are not as sick anymore given that you have tight restrictions. So it’s this rather strange dynamic. If you look at healthcare usage in general it’s actually at an all time low. But telemedicine is on an upward trend and we are operating on higher volumes… than we did before. And that is great, and we have been hiring a lot of great clinicians and been shipping a lot of great tools for clinicians to make the shift to digital.”

The free version of Kry’s tools for clinicians generated “big uplift” for the business, per Schildt, but he’s more excited about the wider service delivery shifts that are happening as the pandemic has accelerated uptake of digital health tools.

“For me the biggest thing has been that [telemedicine is] now very well established, it’s well anchored… There is still a different level of maturity between different European markets. Even [at the time of Kry’s Series C round last year] telemedicine was maybe not something that was a given — for us it’s always been of course; for me it’s always been crystal clear that this is the way of the future; it’s a necessity, you need to shift a lot of the healthcare delivery to digital. We just need to get there.”

The shift to digital is a necessary one, Schildt argues, in order to widen access to (inevitably) limited healthcare resources vs ever growing demand (current pandemic lockdown dampeners excepted). This is why Kry’s focus has always been on solving inefficiencies in healthcare delivery.

It seeks to do that in a variety of ways — including by offering support tools for clinicians working in public healthcare systems (for example, more than 60% of all the GPs in the UK market, where most healthcare is delivered via the taxpayer-funded NHS, is using Kry’s tools, per Schildt); as well as (in a few markets) running a full healthcare service itself where it combines telemedicine with a network of physical clinics where users can go when they need to be examined in person by a clinician. It also has partnerships with private healthcare providers in Europe.

In short, Kry is agnostic about how it helps deliver healthcare. That philosophy extends to the tech side — meaning video consultations are just one component of its telemedicine business which offers remote consultations for a range of medical issues, including infections, skin conditions, stomach problems and psychological disorders. (Obviously not every issue can be treated remotely but at the primary care level there are plenty of doctor-patient visits that don’t need to take place in person.)

Kry’s product roadmap — which is getting an investment boost with this new funding — involves expanding its patient-facing app to offer more digitally delivered treatments, such as Internet Cognitive Based Therapy (ICBT) and mental health self-assessment tools. It also plans to invest in digital healthcare tools to support chronic healthcare conditions — whether by developing more digital treatments itself (either by digitizing existing, proven treatments or coming up with novel approaches), and/or expanding its capabilities via acquisitions and strategic partnerships, according to Schildt.

Over the past five+ years, a growing number of startups have been digitizing proven treatment programs, such as for disorders like insomnia and anxiety, or musculoskeletal and chronic conditions that might otherwise require accessing a physiotherapist in person. Options for partners for Kry to work with on expanding its platform are certainly plentiful — although it’s developed the ICBT programs in house so isn’t afraid to tackle the digital treatment side itself.

“Given that we are in the fourth round of this massive change and transition in healthcare it makes a lot of sense for us to continue to invest in great tools for clinicians to deliver high quality care at great efficiency and deepening the experience from the patient side so we can continue to help even more people,” says Schildt.

“A lot of what we do we do is through video and text but that’s just one part of it. Now we’re investing a lot in our mental health plans and doing ICBT treatment plans. We’re going deeper into chronic treatments. We have great tools for clinicians to deliver high quality care at scale. Both digitally and physically because our platform supports both of it. And we have put a lot of effort during this year to link together our digital healthcare delivery with our physical healthcare delivery that we sometimes run ourselves and we sometimes do in partnerships. So the video itself is just one piece of the puzzle. And for us it’s always been about making sure we saw this from the end consumer’s perspective, from the patient’s perspective.”

“I’m a patient myself and still a lot of what we do is driven by my own frustration on how inefficient the system is structured in some areas,” he adds. “You do have a lot of great clinicians out there but there’s truly a lack of patient focus and in a lot of European markets there’s a clear access problem. And that has always been our starting point — how can we make sure that we solve this in a better way for the patients? And then obviously that involves us both building strong tools and front ends for patients so they can easily access care and manage their health, be pro-active about their health. It also involves us building great tools for clinicians that they can operate and work within — and there we’re putting way more effort as well.

“A lot of clinicians are using our tools to deliver digital care — not only clinicians that we run ourselves but ones we’re partnering with. So we do a lot of it in partnerships. And then also, given that we are a European provider, it involves us partnering with both public and private payers to make sure that the end consumer can actually access care.”

Another batch of startups in the digital healthcare delivery space talk a big game about ‘democratizing’ access to healthcare with the help of AI-fuelled triage or even diagnosis chatbots — with the idea that these tools can replace at least some of the work done by human doctors. The loudest on that front is probably Babylon Health.

Kry, by contrast, has avoided flashy AI hype, even though its tools do frequently incorporate machine learning technology, per Schildt. It also doesn’t offer a diagnosis chatbot. The reason for its different emphasis comes back to the choice of problem to focus on: Inefficiencies in healthcare delivery — with Schildt arguing that decision-making by doctors isn’t anywhere near the top of the list of service pain-points in the sector.

“We’re obviously using what would be considered AI or machine learning tools in all products that we’re building. I think sometimes personally I’m a bit annoyed at companies screaming and shouting about the technology itself and less about what problem you are solving with it,” he tells us. “On the decision-support [front], we don’t have the same sort of chatbot system that some other companies do, no. It’s obviously something that we could build really effortlessly. But I think — for me — it’s always about asking yourself what is the problem that you’re solving for? For the patient. And to be honest I don’t find it very useful.

“In many cases, especially in primary care, you have two categories. You have patients that already know why they need help, because you have a urinary tract infection; you had it before. You have an eye infection. You have a rash —  you know that it’s a rash, you need to see someone, you need to get help. Or you’re worried about your symptoms and you’re not really sure what it is — and you need comfort. And I think we’re not there yet where a chatbot would give you that sort of comfort, if this is something severe or not. You still want to talk to a human being. So I think it’s of limited use.

“Then on the decision side of it — sort of making sure that clinicians are making better decisions — we are obviously doing decision support for our clinicians. But if it’s one thing clinicians are really good at it’s actually making decisions. And if you look into the inefficiencies in healthcare the decision-making process is not the inefficiency. The matching side is an inefficiency side.”

He gives the example of how much the Swedish healthcare system spends on translators (circa €200M) as a “huge inefficiency” that could be reduced simply — by smarter matching of multilingual clinicians to patients.

“Most of our doctors are bilingual but they’re not there at the same time as the patient. So on the matching side you have a lot of inefficiency — and that’s where we have spent time on, for example. How can we sort that, how can we make sure that a patient that is seeking help with us ends up with the right level of care? If that is someone that speaks your native language so you can actually understand each other. Is this something that could be fully treated by a nurse? Or should it be directly to a psychologist?”

“With all technology it’s always about how do we use technology to solve a real problem, it’s less about the technology itself,” he adds.

Another ‘inefficiency’ that can affect healthcare provision in Europe relates to a problematic incentive to try to shrink costs (and, if it’s private healthcare, maximize an insurer’s profits) by making it harder for patients to access primary medical care — whether through complicated claims processes or by offering a bare minimum of information and support to access services (or indeed limiting appointment availability), making patients do the legwork of tracking down a relevant professional for their particular complaint and obtaining a coveted slot to see them.

It’s a maddening dynamic in a sector that should be focused on making as many people as healthy as they possibly can be in order that they avoid as much disease as possible — obviously as that outcome is better for the patients themselves. But also given the costs involved in treating really sick people (medical and societal). A wide range of chronic conditions, from type 2 diabetes to lower back pain, can be particularly costly to treat and yet may be entirely preventable with the right interventions.

Schildt sees a key role for digital healthcare tools to drive a much needed shift toward the kind of preventative healthcare that would be better all round, for both patients and for healthcare costs.

“That annoys me a lot,” he says. “That’s sometimes how healthcare systems are structured because it’s just costly for them to deliver healthcare so they try to make it as hard as possible for people to access healthcare — which is an absurdity and also one of the reasons why you now have increasing costs in healthcare systems in general, it’s exactly that. Because you have a lack of access in the first point of contact, with primary care. And what happens is you do have a spillover effect to secondary care.

“We see that in the data in all European markets. You have people ending up in emergency rooms that should have been treated in primary care but they can’t access primary care because there’s no access — you don’t know how to get in there, it’s long waiting times, it’s just triaged to different levels without getting any help and you have people with urinary tract infections ending up in emergency rooms. It’s super costly… when you have healthcare systems trying to fend people off. That’s not the right way doing it. You have to — and I think we will be able to play a crucial role in that in the coming ten years — push the whole system into being more preventative and proactive and access is a key part of that.

“We want to make it very, very simple for the patients — that they should be able to reach out to us and we will direct you to the right level of care.”

With so much still to do tackling the challenges of healthcare delivery in Europe, Kry isn’t in a hurry to expand its services geographically. Its main markets are Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and the UK, where it operates a healthcare service itself (not necessarily nationwide), though it notes that it offers a video consultation service to 30 regional markets.

“Right now we are very European focused,” says Schildt, when asked whether it has any plans for a U.S. launch. “I would never say that we would never go outside of Europe but for here and now we are extremely focused on Europe, we know those markets very, very well. We know how to manoeuvre in the European systems.

“It’s a very different payer infrastructure in Europe vs the US and then it’s also so that focus is always king and Europe is the mega market. Healthcare is 10% of the GDP in all European markets, we don’t have to go outside of Europe to build a very big business. But for the time being I think it makes a lot of sense for us to stay focused.”

 

Equity Monday: Social media crackdowns, earnings, and a funding deluge

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This is Equity Monday, our weekly kickoff that tracks the latest private market news, talks about the coming week, digs into some recent funding rounds and mulls over a larger theme or narrative from the private markets. You can follow the show on Twitter here and myself here.

This weekend had a key story, earnings are on the way, and there is a huge number of funding rounds to talk about. Ready?

  • The Indian government’s move to remove a number of social media posts critical of its handling of COVID-19 was the key news item this weekend. As the country’s healthcare system buckles, and deaths spike, the move by the current administration to censor the Internet was just about as bad a look you could imagine. At least in terms of a tech response.
  • Also this weekend conversation continued about Substack’s recent push to hire away well-known writers from traditionally-respected publications continued, with Insider reporting that six-figure offers to join the paid newsletter platform are the norm.
  • This morning we’re focused on the impending earnings deluge. Major American tech companies, along with some key social media and ecommerce names will report, giving us a look into how tech companies performed in the first quarter of 2021. We already know that the venture market was hot during the period. How business fared, however, is less clear.
  • On the funding round beat, Mighty Networks raised $50 million, LEAD School raised $30 million, Kidato raised $1.4 million, StashAway stashed away $25 million, and Kyligence put together a $70 million Series D of its own.

The Honest Company also set an early IPO price range after we stopped recording. More to come on the IPO front. Chat Wednesday!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Business continuity planning is a necessity for your fund and portfolio

Just shy of a year ago, I sent an email to our global fund manager partners and to our direct portfolio CEOs titled “Only the decisive survive.” At that time, not many outside of China were concerned about COVID-19. However, I was obsessed.

Hearing stories from fund manager friends with operations in China, I knew things were worse than what the Chinese press were telling the world. And I live only five miles south of the location of the first COVID death in the U.S. The pandemic was accelerating exponentially, and I wanted to get all of our partners to open their eyes to the risks and prepare as well as they could.

I’m not writing with that level of intensity or urgency this time, but I am concerned. We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

We all need to be taking precautionary measures, not just in light of COVID, but to ensure our firms can continue to thrive when faced with unexpected tragedy.

My partner Susana invested in 90 funds over 20 years — she’s seen everything from motorcycle accidents to depression take out fund managers and CEOs. Life works that way sometimes, and it’s not always someone else. It’s the “What happens if I get hit by a bus scenario?” In this case, the bus happens to be a global pandemic.

One of our funds in Asia recently reported COVID cases in three CEOs among their 23 companies. While developed market infections and deaths are trending down, many countries are seeing serious new outbreaks, and some, like Brazil, are doing badly.

Pandemic forecasting site IHME predicts a growing caseload across sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia and Pacific regions. The LAC region is trending down overall, but some countries, including Colombia, are expected to experience a second (or third) wave of infections.

As the Economist said in mid-February, “Coronavirus is not done with humanity yet.”

Planning for your fund

A month or so ago, we were trying to move forward with an investment in a fund in Africa with whom we had been speaking and doing due diligence for a few months. They went radio silent for over two weeks. We didn’t know whether to be miffed, concerned for their health, or what.

Can the tech trade show return in 2021?

The past year has been a devastating one for the conference industry. It’s certainly an issue we’ve grappled with here at TechCrunch, as we’ve worked to move our programming to a virtual setting. Clearly each individual case calls for an individual solution, dependent on geography, attendance and a variety of other factors.

IFA has proven itself bullish on the in-person element. The Berlin tech show was one of a small handful of these sorts of events to go on with the show in Europe. The organization held an in-person event in September, albeit at a dramatically scaled-back rate.

“To be a little poetic, usually in the late summer, there’s a special air in Berlin and you go out in the morning, you feel this air,” director Jens Heithecker told me of last year’s event, which scaled back to around 170 exhibitors from 2,300.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the organization is planning to come back big this year, in spite of prolonged concerns around COVID-19 and its variants. A press release announcing the show’s fall return is downright celebratory.

“With the world on course to emerge from the pandemic, IFA Berlin is set to take place as a full-scale, real-life event from 3 – 7 September 2021,” the company writes. “Huge interest from brands, manufacturers and retailers across all industry sectors to exhibit, network and co-innovate on location in Berlin.”

The organization highlights some health and safety measures that are being carried over from last year’s event. But while it’s not quite ready to talk scale yet, the organization is highlighting a number of new tracks for the conference.

“As always, keeping our visitors and exhibitors safe is our top priority,” it said in a statement. “Of course, with all our precautions to ensure everybody’s good health, we don’t expect IFA Berlin 2021 to set new records. However, the trend is clear: IFA Berlin is set for a full-scale comeback, to lead our industry once more.”

Over in Spain, the GSMA is still working on its messaging as a number of large companies have already announced they intend to only attend the show “virtually.”

Organizers offered TechCrunch the following statement:

We appreciate that it will not be possible for everyone to attend MWC Barcelona 2021, but we are pleased that exhibitors including Verizon*, Orange and Kasperksy are excited to join us in Barcelona. To ensure everyone can enjoy the unique MWC experience, we have developed an industry-leading virtual event platform. The in-person and virtual options are provided so that all friends of MWC Barcelona can attend and participate in a way that works for them. We respect the decisions that have been made by some exhibitors and are working with them to move their participation to the virtual platform.

[*Disclosure: Verizon owns TechCrunch]

Google, IBM, Nokia, Sony, Oracle and Ericsson have already announced they won’t be attending the show in person. Other large names are seemingly undecided. The whole thing is reminiscent of the lead-up to last year’s event, which was ultimately canceled.

The necessity of these large events was called into question prior to the pandemic, but the shift to virtual events has truly brought the topic into sharp relief. It’s true that there’s still value in an in-person event for hardware, specifically, but many have learned to adapt to a virtual setting. Even though if the last CES taught us anything, it’s that there are still a whole lot of kinks to work out with the system, especially as it pertains to prioritizing content all effectively being channeled through the same funnel.

People’s willingness to attend these events is based on a broad range of factors. At the very base level, there’s a question of personal comfortability (I can’t be the only one who has a visceral reaction every time they see crowded photos from past events). For many, it will be a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly attend a large indoor conference. There are factors like vaccinations and a particular region’s handling of the pandemic (all of which can wildly swing in the course of several months).

Just today, Germany’s Health Minister sounded the red alert, asking states to tighten restrictions. “We know from last autumn what happens when we don’t act quickly,” Jens Spahn warned the media.

There are a slew of other factors, including a potential attendee’s location and their workplace’s willingness to approve travel. Many companies have restricted business travel to all but the most essential trips. Depending on what you do for a living, your definition of “essential” may vary. But given how much can potentially change in that time, the soundest strategy for many is planning to tackle things remotely.

Earlier this week, the GSMA sent out its own email to previous attendees titled, “Why do you believe MWC Barcelona 2021 will take place?” The note seems to be a direct response to stories about exhibitors opting for a virtual presence.

“Depending on when you are reading this, we will be about 12 weeks away from the doors opening for MWC21 in Barcelona,” CEO John Hoffman wrote. “To say that the last year has been disruptive is an understatement and my thoughts are with anyone who has been impacted by COVID-19. I am not only hopeful about the future, but I am also excited about convening our ecosystem at MWC21. We recognise that not everyone will be able to attend in person and that is fine as we will augment our physical event with our MWC virtual program bringing you content from the show.”

Canceling a flagship show one year could have been utterly devastating. For many of these organizers — and the local governments who rely on tourism money — two years might seem unthinkable. MWC’s virtual strategy in year one of the pandemic was, understandably, undercooked.

More than a year into this, however, the GSMA and organizations like it hopefully have more robust strategies in place. The fact of the matter is that going virtual isn’t a one- or two-off. For many companies and people profoundly impacted by the pandemic, this is what the future looks like.

Yak Tack is a super simple app to boost vocabulary

Word nerds with a love for linguistic curiosities and novel nomenclature that’s more fulsome than their ability to make interesting new terms stick will be thrilled by Yak Tack: A neat little aidemémoire (in Android and iOS app form) designed for expanding (English) vocabulary, either as a native speaker or language learner.

Yak Tack uses adaptive spaced repetition to help users remember new words — drawing on a system devised in the 1970s by German scientist Sebastian Leitner.

The app’s core mechanic is a process it calls ‘tacking’. Here’s how it works: A user comes across a new word and inputs it into Yak Tack to look up what it means (definition content for words and concepts is sourced from Oxford, Merriam-Webster, and Wikpedia via their API, per the developer).

Now they can choose to ‘tack’ the word to help them remember it.

This means the app will instigate its system of space repetition to combat the routine problem of memory decay/forgetting, as new information tends to be jettisoned by our brains unless we make a dedicated effort to remember it (and/or events conspire to make it memorable for other, not necessarily very pleasant reasons).

Tacked words are shown to Yak Tack users via push notification at spaced intervals (after 1 day, 2,3,5,8, and 13; following the fibonacci sequence).

Tapping on the notification takes the user to their in-app Tack Board where they get to re-read the definition. It also displays all the words they’ve tacked and their progress in the learning sequence for each one.

After the second repeat of a word there’s a gamified twist as the user must select the correct definition or synonym — depending on how far along in the learning sequence they are — from a multiple-choice list.

Picking the right answer means the learning proceeds to the next fibonacci interval. An incorrect answer moves the user back to the previous interval — meaning they must repeat that step, retightening (instead of expanding) the information-exposure period; hence adaptive space repetition.

It’s a simple and neat use of digital prompts to help make new words stick.

[gallery ids="2139025,2139022,2139023,2139024,2139026"]

The app also has a simple and neat user interface. It actually started as an email-only reminder system, says developer Jeremy Thomas, who made the tool for himself, wanting to expand his own vocabulary — and was (intentionally) the sole user for the first six months after it launched in 2019. (He was also behind an earlier (now discontinued) vocabulary app called Ink Paste.)

For now Yak Tack is a side/passion project so he can keep coding (and indulge his “entrepreneurial proclivities”, as he wordily puts it), his day job being head of product engineering at Gusto. But he sees business potential in bootstrapping the learning tool — and has incorporated it as an LLC.

“We have just over 500 users spread across the world (17 different timezones). We’re biggest in Japan, Germany, and the U.S.,” he tells TechCrunch.

“I’m funding it myself and have no plans to take on investment. I’ve learned to appreciate technology companies that have an actual business model underneath them,” he adds. “There’s an elegance to balancing growth and business fundamentals, and given the low cost of starting a SaaS business, I’m surprised more companies don’t bootstrap, frankly.”

The email-only version of Yak Tack still works (you send an email to word@yaktack.com with the word you’d like to learn as the subject and the spaced repeats happen in the same sequence — but over email). But the mobile app is much more popular, per Thomas.

It is also (inevitably) more social, showing users words tacked by other users who tacked the same word as them — so there’s a bit of word discovery serendipity thrown in. However the user who will get the most out of Yak Tack is definitely the voracious and active reader who’s ingesting a lot of text elsewhere and taking the time to look up (and tack) new and unfamiliar words as they find them.

The app itself doesn’t do major lifting on the word discovery front — but it will serve up random encounters by showing you lists of latest tacks, most-tacked this month and words from any other users you follow. (There’s also a ‘last week’s most tacked words’ notification sent weekly.)

Taking a step back, one of the cruel paradoxes of the COVID-19 pandemic is that while it’s made education for kids harder, as schooling has often been forced to go remote, it’s given many stuck-at-home adults more time on their hands than usual to put their mind to learning new stuff — which explains why online language learning has seen an uplift over the past 12 months+.

And with the pandemic remaining the new dystopian ‘normal’ in most parts of the world, market conditions seem pretty conducive for a self-improvement tool like Yak Tack.

“We’ve seen a lot of good user growth during the pandemic, in large part because I think people are investing in themselves. I think that makes the timing right for an app like Yak Tack,” says Thomas.

Yak Tack is freemium, with free usage for five active tacks (and a queue system for any other words you add); or $5 a year for unlimited tacks and no queue.

“I figure the worldwide TAM [total addressable market] of English-learners is really big, and at that low price point Yak Tack is both accessible and is a huge business opportunity,” he adds.

Outschool is the newest edtech unicorn

Outschool, a marketplace providing small-group, virtual after-school activities for children has raised a $75 million Series C led by Coatue and Tiger Global Management. TechCrunch first learned of the round from sources familiar with the transaction; the company confirmed the deal to TechCrunch later today.

The new funding values Outschool’s at $1.3 billion, around 4 times higher than its roughly $320 million valuation set less than a year ago.

To date, Outschool has raised $130 million in venture capital to date, inclusive of its new round.

The company’s valuation growth curve is steep for any startup, let alone an edtech concern that saw the majority of its growth during the pandemic. But while CEO and co-founder Amir Nathoo says his company’s new valuation is partially a reflection of today’s fundraising frenzy, he thinks revenue sustainability is a key factor in his company’s recent fundraise.

The new unicorn’s core product is after school classes for entertainment or supplemental studies, on an ongoing or one-off basis. As the company has grown, ongoing classes have grown from 10% of its business to 50% of its business, implying that the startup is generating more reliable revenue over time.

The change from one-off classes to enduring engagements could be good for the company and its students. On the former, recurring revenue is music to investor ears. On the latter, students need repetition to develop close relationships with a course and a group. Ongoing classes about debate or a weekly zombie dance class makes for a stickier experience.

Nathoo says everyone always asks what the most popular classes are, but said it continues to change since its main clientele – kids – have evolving favorites. One week it might be math, the other it might be minecraft and architecture.

Its changing revenue profile helped Outschool generate more than $100 million in bookings in 2020, compared to $6 million in 2019 and just $500,000 in 2017. Nathoo declined to share the company’s expectations for 2021 beyond “projecting to grow aggressively.”

Outschool reached brief positive cash flow last year as a result of massive growth in bookings, but Nathoo shared that that has since changed.

“My goal is to always stay within touching distance of profit,” he said. “But given the fast change in the market, it makes sense to invest aggressively into opportunities that will make sense in the long-term.”

What’s next

Nathoo expects to grow Outschool’s staff from 110 people to 200 by the end of the year, with a specific focus on international growth. In 2020, Outschool launched in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK, so hiring will continue there and elsewhere.

On the flip side, Outschool isn’t  teachers at the same clip it was at the height of the pandemic in the United States. When the pandemic started, Outschool had 1,000 teachers on its platform. Within months, Outschool grew to host 10,000 teachers, a screening process that the founder explained was resource-heavy but vital. Outschool makes more money if teachers join the platform full-time: teachers pocket 70% of the price they set for classes, while Outschool gets the other 30% of income. But, Nathoo views the platform as more of a supplement to traditional education. Instead of scaling revenue by convincing teachers to come on full-time, the CEO is growing by adding more part-time teachers to the platform.

Similar to how Airbnb created a host endowment fund to share its returns with the people who made its platform work, Outschool has dedicated 2% of its fundraise to creating a similar program to reward teachers on its platform in the event of liquidity.

One of Outschool’s most ambitious goals is, ironically, to go in school. While some startups have found success selling to schools amid the pandemic, district sales cycles and tight budgets continue to be a difficult challenge for scaling purposes. Still, the startup wants to make its way into students’ lives through contracts with schools and employers, which could help low income families access the platform. Nathoo says enterprise sales is a small part of its business, but the strategy began just last year as part of COVID-19 response. It is currently piloting its B2B offering with a number of schools.

Outschool will also consider acquiring early-stage startups focused on direct-to-consumer learning in international markets. While no acquisitions have been made by the startup to date, consolidation in the edtech sector broadly is heating up.

Nathoo stressed that Outschool’s continued growth, even as schools reopen, has de-risked the company from post-pandemic worries.

“There’s going to be a big spike of in-person activities because everyone is going to want to do that at once,” he said. “But then we’re going to settle at some more even distribution because the future of education is hybrid.”

He added that Outschool’s ethos around online learning hasn’t changed since conception. The company has never seen opportunity in the for-credit, subject-matter digital education sector, and instead has focused more on supplemental ways to support students after school.

“That’s the piece of the education system that is underserved and that was missing,” he said. “The advantages of online learning will remain in the convenience, the cost, and the variety of what you can get that isn’t always available locally.”

Tech talent can thrive in the public sector but government must invest in it

Building, scaling and launching new tools and products is the lifeblood of the technology sector. When we consider these concepts today, many think of Big Tech and flashy startups, known for their industry dominance or new technologies that impact our everyday lives. But long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for these innovations, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

Long before garages and dorm rooms became decentralized hubs for innovation, local and state governments, along with many agencies within the federal government, pioneered tech products with the goal of improving the lives of millions.

As an industry, we’ve developed a notion that working in government, the place where the groundwork was laid for the digital assistants we use every day, is now far less appealing than working in the private sector. The immense salary differential is often cited as the overwhelming reason workers prefer to work in the private sphere.

But the hard truth is the private sector brings far more value than just higher compensation to employees. Look no further than the boom in the tech sector during the pandemic to understand why it’s so attractive. A company like Zoom, already established and successful in its own right for years, found itself in a situation where it had to serve an exponentially growing and diverse user base in a short period of time. It quickly confronted a slew of infrastructure and user experience pivots on its way to becoming a staple of work-from-home culture — and succeeded.

That innate ability to work fast to deliver for consumers and innovate at what feels like a moment’s notice is what really draws talent. Compare that to the government’s tech environment, where decreased funding and partisan oversight slow the pace of work, or, worse, can get in the way of exploring or implementing new ideas entirely.

One look (literally, see our graph below) at the trends around R&D spending in the private and government sectors also paints a clear picture of where future innovations will come from if we don’t change the equation.

Chart of Facebook R&D spending vs. DARPA annual budget

Image Credits: Josh Mendelsohn/Hangar

Look no further than the U.S. government’s own (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment. The agency aimed to provide a thorough analysis of burgeoning issues in science and technology, exposing many public services to a new age of innovation and implementation. Amid a period of downsizing by a newly Republican-led Congress, the OTA was defunded in 1995 with a peak annual budget of just $35.1 million (adjusted for 2019 dollars). The authoritative body on the importance of technology to the government was deemed duplicative and unnecessary. Despite numerous calls for its reinstatement, it has since remained shuttered.

Despite dwindling public sector investment and lackluster political action, the problems that technology is poised to help solve haven’t gone away or even eased up.

From the COVID pandemic to worsening natural disasters and growing societal inequities, public leaders have a responsibility to solve the pressing issues we face today. That responsibility should breed a desire to continuously iterate for the sake of constituents and quality of life, much in the same way private tech caters to the product, user and bottom line.

My own experiences in government have shaped my career and approach to building new technologies more than my time in Silicon Valley. There are plenty of tangible parallels to the private sector that can attract driven and passionate tech workers, but the responsibility of giving government work realistic consideration doesn’t just fall at the feet of talent. The governments that we depend on must invest more capital and pay closer attention to the tech community.

Tech workers want an environment where they can thrive and get to see their work in action, whoever the end user may be. They don’t want to feel hamstrung by the threat of decreased funding or the red tape that comes as a result of government partisanship. Replicating the unimpeded focus of Silicon Valley’s brightest examples is a must if we’re serious about drawing talented individuals into government or public-sector-focused work.

A great example of these ideas in action is one of the most beloved government agencies, NASA. Its continued funding has produced technologies developed for space exploration that are now commonplace in our lives, such as scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam and water filters. These use cases came much later on, only after millions of dollars were invested without knowing what would result.

NASA has continued to bolster its ability to stay nimble and evolve at a rapid pace by partnering with private companies. For talent in the tech sphere, the ability to leverage outside resources in this way, without compromising the product or work, is a boon for ideation and iteration.

One can also point to the agency when considering the importance of keeping technology research and innovation as apolitical as possible. It’s one of the few widely known public entities to prosper on the back of bipartisan support. Unfortunately, politicians typically do all of us a disservice, particularly tech workers in government, when they too closely connect themselves or their parties to a particular program or platform. It hinders innovation — and the ensuing mudslinging can detract from talented individuals jumping into government service.

There is no shortage of extremely capable tech workers who want to help solve the biggest issues facing society. Will we give them the legitimate space and opportunity to conquer those problems? There’s been some indication that we can. These ambitious and forward-looking efforts matter today more than ever and show all of us in the tech ecosystem that there’s a place in government for tech talent to grow and flourish.