Woflow structures merchant data so food ordering can be more accurate

Woflow, a data infrastructure company, raised $7.3 million in Series A funding to continue developing its automated approach to bring offline data online.

The company helps customers with antiquated inventory systems power their merchant onboarding data, like restaurant menus and images, with APIs to structure data in a way that when someone’s food order requests “no mustard,” it is recognized properly, Woflow co-founder and CEO Jordan Nemrow told TechCrunch. Nemrow and Will Bewley founded the San Francisco-based company in 2017.

“In the background, machine learning models and artificial intelligence-powered humans in the loop do the structuring for our customers, which include food delivery, e-commerce and point-of-sale,” Nemrow added. “Restaurants usually deal with having offline data, but time equals money, and if there is incorrect data, there can be some financial reimbursement. We are the de facto solution for that.”

The round comes nearly a year after the company launched its merchant data tool with $3.5 million in funding led by Craft Ventures. We touched on it briefly at the time, with my colleague Alex Wilhelm remarking on Woflow’s early traction with food delivery giants like DoorDash, Deliveroo, Wolt and Popmenu.

Woflow

Example of Woflow’s merchant data. Image Credits: Woflow

Craft Ventures is back for the second round, this time in a participatory role with a group of angel investors, with Base10 Partners and Construct Capital co-leading the Series A.

Woflow’s co-founders decided to go after an additional round of capital when they saw how quickly they were ramping up and adding new enterprise clients, Bewley, COO, said. After launching last year, the company saw its revenue doubling every couple of months and then in the last six months it was doubling every month, a trend he said is planned to occur through 2022.

“We thought it was a good time to start fundraising when we started getting traction, seeing the expansion, and thought about doing things in parallel that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were watching our pennies,” he added.

The new funding gives Woflow about $11 million in total funding to date. It will be deployed into accelerating product development, recruiting on the engineering team and developing new language considerations so the company can move into new markets.

Bewley went on to say that Woflow is going to be careful about its next expansion. Restaurant menus are the company’s “bread and butter,” and they are approaching 1 million merchants onboarded, which Bewley believes means that approach is scaling well. The company is in 10 countries right now, with five languages, and aims to add another 10 languages in coming years as it expands into Latin America and Asia.

They are already looking at the next horizontal markets, like grocery stores and convenience stores. Both of those stores “are a totally different beast,” Nemrow said. However, there will be some trade-offs: restaurants have 50 or 60 items with a complexity of ordering options, while grocery and convenience stores could have 50,000 items, but will be less complex, and SKUs can be mapped out and reused across vendors.

As part of the investment, Rexhi Dollaku, partner at Base10 Partners, joins the Woflow board of directors. Base10 often invests in the digitization of the food supply chain, and Dollaku said one of the biggest trends he is seeing here is ease of use of food apps and buying digitally.

“Part of what’s driving the trend is back office systems that aren’t connected to front systems,” he added. “The consumer-facing part has transformed in the past decade, so you can do things now you could not before. Part of the reason I was excited by Woflow is that they are providing the critical infrastructure for the food category, starting with restaurants, which is a highly overlooked part of the ecosystem. People aren’t spending time thinking about back and front integration, especially for businesses that are not as tech savvy.”

Starship Technologies picks up €50M from the EU’s investment arm to expand its fleet of autonomous delivery robots

Starship Technologies, one of the bigger names in the world of autonomous delivery robots — those little caboose-like, boxy delivery vehicles that self-drive around cities — has been on a roll during Covid-19, providing extra (unmanned) horsepower to distribute food and other goods between stores or restaurants and consumers, at a time when consumers were either reluctant or being ordered to stay at home to minimize the spread of the virus. Now it’s picking up some funding along with an endorsement Europe to further its growth.

The startup has received €50 million (just under $57 million at today’s rates) from the European Investment Bank, the funding arm of the European Union. Starship Technologies is describing this as a “quasi-equity facility”, meaning there is a venture loan involved in the mix.

It is not disclosing its valuation with this investment, but Alastair Westgarth said that this doesn’t rule out raising further funding from investors. Starship raised $40 million Series A led by Morpheus Ventures back in 2019, and last January according to Pitchbook data also raised a further $17 million with strategic backers TDK Ventures (the investment arm of the Japanese electronics giant) and Goodyear Ventures among the investors. It has now made more than 2.5 million commercial deliveries (up from 2 million in October 2021) and travelled over 3 million miles globally. Westgarth said that on average, its fleet is making 10,000 deliveries per day.

Based out of Los Angeles, Starship initially made its name, back in 2017, running pilots with delivery companies in the U.S. — Doordash and Postmates (now part of Uber) — and then deployments in closed campus environments. It also butted heads around that time with city regulators in San Francisco, and it has yet to return to that city. It’s also had a significant presence in Europe, with its primary R&D operation based out of Tallinn, in Estonia (hence the financial endorsement from the EU), and its first substantial city deployment in Milton Keynes in the UK. Prices for the service can vary by city and location, but as an example a service that it provides to grocery chain Coop in Milton Keynes is made for a flat fee of 99 pence.

In the last two years, Starship’s name has been coming up a lot as a delivery partner helping companies get food order to customers at a time when delivery drivers were in shorter supply, people wanted to move around less, and generally come into less contact with humans. The Milton Keynes service alone saw hundreds of thousands of deliveries, and Starship started to sign on some significant partners. In the UK, the list includes the grocery chains Tesco, Coop and Budgens, which partner with Starship primarily as a delivery vehicle not for its mega grocery stores, but for its centrally-located, smaller-format shops, which act as ‘dark stores’ stocking the items that Starship delivers to smaller radiuses around them. People order Starship deliveries via the startup’s iOS and Android apps.

Today the campus deployments are a majority of Starship’s business — some 70% — but the signs are pointing to a likely shift, Westgarth said.

“Grocery will be larger in a year to 18 months,” he said. The addressable market for campuses that would likely use Starship’s services is around 400-500, he said, “but grocery is billions of dollars. We are chasing delivery services around the world. We can deliver like anyone on a bike, scooter or car, but we’re cheaper, and our robots get cheaper each year.” The average battery life is 18 hours and a typical robot can travel around 40km/day. 

The company now operates its fleet as a level 4 autonomous system, meaning humans are monitoring at an operations center for issues, and can if need be take over if a vehicle finds itself in an unexpected pickle, but that is not the default.

“99% of the time our robots have nobody involved. We make many deliveries without anyone involved,” Westgarth said.

 

The funding from the EIB ticks a couple of different boxes for the EU. First, it has been looking to promote more sustainable forms of transportation, both to reduce emissions and to reduce traffic on the roads. Second, it’s had a long-term goal of backing tech startups to further its standing in the digital economy.

“Electric vehicles in all shapes and sizes will be part of our future, and can be a key part in the sustainable transport puzzle,” said EIB VP Thomas Östros in a statement. “Starship’s delivery robots are already proving their worth, and we are glad to support the company so that they can continue to develop their technology and scale-up their production.”

Deliverect raises $150M at a $1.4B+ valuation to streamline online and offline food orders

As we have started to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel, food delivery has shaped up to continue to be a major business. In England, for example, some 76% of people order at least one takeaway a week, whereas it was 60% pre-pandemic. Now, a startup called Deliverect that has built a platform to integrate the many moving parts that go into ordering and delivery for the average restaurant is announcing a big round of funding to pursue the opportunity. The startup has raised $150 million, a Series D round of funding that values the company at over $1.4 billion.

Coatue Management and Alkeon Capital Management are leading the round, with OMERS Ventures, DST Global, Redpoint Ventures, Newion and Smartfin also participating. The round comes less than a year after its previous round — a $65 million Series C that it raised last April.

It’s the first time that Deliverect is disclosing its valuation but the company has grown at a pretty torrid rate since that last round. It now has its software in use in 20,000 locations across 40 markets, with the number of locations doubling in less than a year. It has also tripled its year-on-year growth (and CEO Zhong Xu, who co-founded the company with Jan Hollez (CTO), Jelte Vrijhoef (CIO) and Jerome Laredo (CRO) said in an interview that in fact the valuation has also roughly tripled since then). It’s fast heading to processing some 100 million orders globally, he added.

The company plans to use the funding to hire more people, and to build out more functionality on its platform, including an app store to make it easier to integrate more companies as and when they are used by one of their customers. Today it’s biggest market is Europe, but it’s growing the fastest in North America, so it will also be investing to continue expanding there. (Xu actually called me from a plane about to take off to New York.)

One thing that Deliverect sees is that demand for its services is definitely not slowing down. 

“We are preparing for the age after Covid,” Xu said. “We are preparing to scale to meet all of the digital opportunities in the food hospitality industry.”

The business started in 2018 with serving independent restaurants — born, as we recounted previously, in Ghent, Belgium, out of Xu’s experience with his father, who had started a business selling point of sale systems to Chinese restaurants after immigrating to the country from China; Xu saw the fragmentation in the business and struck out on his own to fix that gap.

In the years since, Deliverect has moved into also work with large chains like Pret A Manger, Taco Bell and many others. Today Deliverect’s business is split roughly 50-50 between the two categories.

In either case, the challenge is the same: restaurants and others in the food industry typically work with a number of suppliers and need better ways to organize that into a single platform.

For restaurants, it might be several ordering and delivery systems that come into a kitchen that send in orders to be filled.

For delivery services, it might be a number of restaurants that it needs to organize for drivers.

Consumer packaged goods companies, a newer category of customers for Deliverect (Unilever is one such customer today), might be working directly with grocery delivery companies to supply them and thus may need their own platforms to manage how much, where and when to send of a specific product.

The opportunity that the company has addressed is that while a number of aggregating platforms have emerged for other parts of the hospitality industry — Booking.com, for example, for travel — restaurants and food in general had yet to be addressed.

“Food is the last frontier,” Xu said. “If there were no pandemic things would have moved quite slowly because the infrastructure for a restaurant is very fragmented. We’re allowing for a new age of digital solutions and we are building a new system.”

Pret A Manger is an apt example of how Deliverect is expanding its business with customers: initially helping with deliveries, it is now also powering the company’s order management in store, too.

The fact that the pandemic has pushed along the growth of Deliverect in the market has also worked in the reverse, it seems.

Hollez recounted how one restaurant was so grateful for getting through the pandemic, crediting Deliverect for its success in handling orders for delivery, that the proprietor bought the company’s team dinner one night. “This is why we do it,” he said.

Deliverect says that longer term, it might potentially consider an IPO, but that is not something on the cards at the moment. It does see an opportunity to make acquisitions selectively to add more tech and talent into the mix.

One area where it’s less concerned is in the area of competition, say from a point of sale provider who might want to own the bigger experience. Xu describes Deliverect as a “Switzerland” that plays nice with everyone, but doesn’t compete directly with anyone.

“Deliverect is streamlining the on-demand ordering economy with its industry leading, omni-channel platform that connects consumers to leading restaurants and brands,” said Mark McLaughlin, general partner at Alkeon Capital, in a statement. “Deliverect’s co-founders – all veterans of next generation commerce – have assembled the strongest team in hospitality to steer Deliverect’s ambitious road map and disruptive technology into new markets and use cases.”

“The multi-billion dollar market for restaurant-side technology is being fueled by multiple tailwinds including a change in consumer habits related to the ongoing pandemic, the need to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of delivery networks, and shifts in foodservice retail such as dark kitchens and virtual restaurant brands,” added Sebastian Duesterhoeft, a general partner at Coatue. “We believe Deliverect is capitalizing on these trends with its goal to become a category leader with a mission to empower restaurants globally. We are thrilled to partner with Zhong and the team.”

Soona, a virtual photo shoot platform for e-commerce, raises $35 million Series B

Alongside the dramatic growth in e-commerce, in part fueled by the pandemic, there’s also increased demand for services that can help merchants more easily participate online. A startup called Soona, now backed by an additional $35 million in Series B funding, has been tapping into this market with its platform that allows brands to create content for their e-commerce websites and marketing through “virtual” photo and video shoots. That is, instead of having merchants ship off their items for a remote photo shoot, then wait for the results, Soona’s technology allows the brands to participate in the photo shoot process, both remotely and in real time.

“We invite you to join your photo shoot in the browser. It’s not all that different than you and I joining a Zoom meeting,” explains Soona co-founder and CEO Liz Giorgi. “You click on the calendar invitation and your photo shoot appears in the browser where you can see every single photo and video clip as it’s captured in real time. Those assets are there for you to interact with, so the customers or the teams can give feedback on those assets to the photographer,” she says.

Image Credits: Soona

Soona’s customers can communicate to the photographer if they want to do things like change the composition, add or remove props from the scene or anything else they want to tweak about the photo shoot. What’s more, the merchants appreciate how they don’t have to pay upfront for the service. Instead, they’ll pay $39 per photo or $93 per video clip, and only have to purchase the assets they actually want. Once their selection is made, the photos and videos are delivered within 24 hours, ready to be uploaded to the merchants’ website or marketing channels. Merchants can also visit their past shoots at any time and order more content.

The business’s success has now led to a new infusion of capital, as Soona is announcing today it’s received $35 million in new funding led by Bain Capital Ventures. Prior investors Union Square Ventures, Matchstick Ventures, Starting Line Ventures, 2048 Ventures and Range Ventures also participated in the round, bringing the company’s total raise to date to $51 million.

Giorgi’s background is in professional media production. Before starting Soona, she ran her own internet video production company, Mighteor, after working in media and television production. She says the experience has given her a good eye for determining how to make content, and specifically, how to make content beautiful. Her co-founder, Hayley Anderson, meanwhile, has a background in animation and was a creative director at Mighteor, which was later acquired by creator network Standard.

Image Credits: Soona; Hayley Anderson and Liz Giorgi

The duo founded Soona in 2019, launching their initial product the same year. In its earlier days, Soona worked by having customers come into actual studios for their photo and video shoots, while using software that offered quick uploads of the footage for the customers to shop from immediately. But the pandemic forced Soona to readjust and switch to a virtual model. As it turned out, embracing this model has helped the business grow not only during the height of the pandemic, when in-person activities shut down, but also in the months since as remote work became more of a business norm. Soona grew its revenue 400% from 2020 to 2021, then another 300% from 2021 to 2022. The company won’t share its annual revenue figures, however, citing its competitive advantage in keeping its business metrics private.

Today, Soona has served around 10,000 merchants, including customers like Wild Earth, Lola Tampons, The Sill, SNOW, Birchbox and others, but not via a subscription model. Instead, it’s a transactional business — but one Giorgi believes has found the right product-market fit, as 63% of its revenue on a monthly basis last year came from repeat customers. Around 60% of its customers are $1 million to $5 million e-commerce stores, many of which are building on Shopify. The company is strong in cosmetics, beauty, wellness, fashion and footwear, and is now growing more in consumer packaged goods and nutrition products.

“While we may not have a recurring business model, there is a high level of reoccurrence to how often brands need these assets. And so by making it possible for them to choose when and how they’re going to spend money and make investments in these visual assets, we’ve made it really easy for them to continue to work with Soona,” notes Giorgi. “But we’re not taking subscriptions off the table,” she adds.

Today, there are other businesses that allow merchants to ship in products for remote photo shoots, like Pow Photography, but they don’t offer Soona’s real-time experience. And some rivals primarily focus on “product-on-white” photography — product images on white backgrounds for traditional e-commerce sites — as opposed to the richer content created by pairing products with models in photos shot in living rooms or kitchen sets, for example. Meanwhile, other competitors work to connect merchants with photographers directly in more of a marketplace-style offering.

Image Credits: Soona

Soona’s proprietary technology, however, offers the customers everything they need to plan their photo shoot online, including access to models — both human and pet! — and stylists. Models work on a contract basis, similar to other gig economy jobs. But Soona’s photographers can either take on the jobs as gigs or transition to full-time employees. Today, there are around 35 full-time photographers on staff, and roughly 100 on contract.

With the additional funding, Soona is looking to grow its marketplace of model services, which is now one of the quickest-growing segments of its business — 20% of the total business in 2021, in fact. Soona plans to triple the size of this platform in 2022 to bring on more types of diverse talent and new ways of showing off products for its merchant customers. It will also invest in technology that will help make more recommendations to brands about what type of photo shoots to create by asking for select business data and the merchant’s goals. Already, Soona has launched Amazon and Instagram-recommended shoots, and is planning to launch something similar for TikTok.

The company also plans to expand its API platform, to grow its set of integrations beyond Shopify, which today accounts for 55% of its customer base. Going forward, Soona aims to integrate with other pieces of the e-commerce technology stack, like Klayvio or BigCommerce, for example.

The company, which has hubs in Denver, Austin and the Twin Cities, will also triple its engineering team by adding engineers outside the current team in Minneapolis. It will grow its product team as well.

Giorgi declined to speak to Soona’s current valuation, but noted Soona is “on the path” toward becoming the next female-founded unicorn. “We’re going to get there very soon,” she said.

Gorillas to acquire Frichti in latest instant grocery consolidation

German startup Gorillas has announced that it plans to acquire Frichti, a French startup that delivers both ready-to-eat meals and groceries. The acquisition hasn’t closed just yet but both companies have entered exclusive discussions.

“We don’t share details about the deal itself, especially as it isn’t completely signed,” Frichti co-founder and co-CEO Julia Bijaoui told me. “But it is correct to say that these are negotiations that should lead to Frichti getting acquired by Gorillas.”

When asked when the transaction is supposed to close, she told me it could take “a few weeks or a few months”, it’s still hard to tell exactly. Over the years, Frichti had raised around €100 million in total ($114 million at today’s exchange rate).

Gorillas is part of a group of startups that are trying to reinvent grocery deliveries in Europe. The company has raised nearly $1 billion in its most recent funding round and is already operating in eight markets — including France.

It competes with Flink, Zapp, Cajoo, Getir and Gopuff (following Dija’s and Fancy’s acquisitions). With these apps, customers can buy everything they would find in a small grocery store. And they all promise near-instant deliveries so that you don’t have to plan in advance when you need to order groceries.

In addition to this new crop of startups, other well-established companies are trying to position themselves as competitors to instant grocery startups. For instance, Deliveroo and Uber Eats are both emphasizing grocery deliveries in their respective app.

Frichti, on the other hand, has been around since 2015, but with a different positioning. In the article that I wrote back in 2015, I called the startup a full-stack food delivery startup. The startup designs its own recipes, cooks ready-to-eat meals in its own kitchens, stores food in its own micro-fulfillment centers and handles deliveries with its own delivery service.

The result is a complete end-to-end service with a strong brand and reasonable prices. Over the past few years, the company has expanded to include fruits, vegetables, grocery items and private label products. It has served 450,000 customers in total across eight different cities in France and Belgium.

The subcontracting incident of summer 2020

It’s a graceful exit for Frichti and the acquisition makes a ton of sense for Gorillas. Gorillas is acquiring a strong brand, a network of micro-fulfillment centers and a different segment in the delivery space.

Frichti and Gorillas will still operate as two different services in Frichti’s existing markets France and Belgium. As for Gorillas’ six other markets, the company could choose a different path.

“Honestly, we haven’t decided yet but it’s more likely that we scale many of the building blocks of Frichti’s product — but under an umbrella brand that could be Gorillas,” Frichti’s Julia Bijaoui said.

And because Frichti has been around for so long, Gorillas could learn a thing or two from Frichti. “We have had six years to build this model of quick commerce,” Bijaoui said. “We’re generating an operating profit, which is quite unusual in this industry.”

But the past 18 months haven’t been so easy for Frichti. In June 2020, Libération’s Gurvan Kristanadjaja reported that some of Frichti’s deliveries were handled by undocumented workers. According to Frichti’s founders, the startup wasn’t aware of that. Instead, Frichti, like all delivery companies, relied on subcontracting companies to hire delivery people and handle some deliveries for the platform.

And one of those subcontracting companies lured undocumented immigrants and told them that they could make money with Frichti deliveries. There was no work contract, no minimum pay.

That was just one example that highlighted a much bigger problem. Frichti checked the status of all its delivery partners to make sure that they have a proper working permit and get paid properly. The company underestimated the issue.

Instead of blaming Frichti, this crisis highlights a widespread problem with the subcontracting model and app-based gig work

Hundreds of delivery people realized that they would lose their source of income. So they decided to protest and they blocked access to Frichti’s micro-fulfillment centers. During several weeks, Frichti simply couldn’t operate normally.

According to Libération, 200 out of 500 delivery persons working with Frichti didn’t have a residence permit.

That incident became a serious crisis that could have led to Frichti’s bankruptcy. A few weeks later, around half of the undocumented migrants who handled Frichti deliveries received a residence permit.

“We’ve had this incident during the summer of 2020. Clearly, we had some flaws in our process to check the identity and the permits of our delivery partners. It’s something that we have completely fixed today. We make sure that our delivery people have a residence permit and work in optimal conditions,” Bijaoui said.

“It’s an event that taught us a lot and I think we came out of it stronger because we partnered with them and helped them get residence permits,” she added.

Instead of blaming Frichti, this crisis highlights a widespread problem with the subcontracting model and app-based gig work. Account renting and dishonest subcontracting companies have been an issue for years.

And yet, both regulators and companies have been slow when it comes to implementing changes for the better. I’m sure the Frichti team is glad that it has turned this page of the company’s story, but I’m also sure there are other companies who will face similar incidents.

After years of exploding growth, there has been some consolidation in the food and grocery delivery space — as today’s acquisition proves once again. Let’s hope that these newly formed delivery giants won’t turn a blind eye on exploitation in the gig economy.

Calii bags $22.5M to build Latin America’s grocery shopping future

Grocery delivery startup Calii is carving out a piece of Latin America’s $1 trillion groceries and food delivery market with its approach to cut inefficiencies in the food supply chain so it can bring produce and thousands of other grocery items to customers’ doorsteps in less than two hours.

Calii

Calii app

To continue on that mission, the company announced Friday $22.5 million in Series A funding co-led by Dalus Capital and JAM Fund, with participation from backers including Forerunner Ventures, Streamlined Ventures, Y Combinator and Base10 Partners. To date, it has raised nearly $35 million.

David Eduardo Arrambide Montemayor and Maurizio Caló Caligaris, both Stanford-educated engineers, started Calii, a mobile grocery app that connects with producers and brands to automate the supply chain end-to-end and deliver more than 5,000 products, like produce, meat, seafood and prepared items, via a network of micro-fulfillment centers.

This not only provides customers with food savings, but reduces environmental waste by up to three times, CEO Arrambide Montemayor told TechCrunch via email.

“By cutting middlemen and reducing inefficiencies, we generate more profits for producers and pass on greater savings to our users,” he added. “Our products are priced at par or lower than traditional supermarkets, such as Walmart.”

Calii is operating in what has become quite a crowded space aiming to lift Latin America’s current less than 5% online grocery sales within the retail market. Arrambide Montemayor considers the company’s competitors to fall into three categories: marketplaces, like Cornershop, quick commerce, like Jokr and Rappi Turbo, and full groceries, like Jüsto and Merqueo, with the four last companies all attracting venture capital in the past year.

What differentiates Calii from those players is pricing, speed and fewer products.

“Our tech-driven approach of automated micro-fulfillment centers, digitized picking and packing, machine learning and big data algorithms for SKU selection and demand forecasting and focus on ultra-fresh produce and grocery items, make us the top-rated grocery app, replacing the weekly grocery trip to the supermarket,” he added.

When Arrambide Montemayor and Caló Caligaris launched the company in March 2019, the team spent the first 24 months in two markets to perfect the model, user experience and unit economics.

Over the past 12 months Calii grew more than three times in revenue. In Monterrey, its first market, the company delivers over 2,000 orders per day, and the average order value is above $40. During the same time period, the company grew its headcount by 250% to over 250 employees and operators.

With the funding, the company is kicking off a new phase of lightning-fast expansion and growth, Arrambide Montemayor said. It is expanding its footprint in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, with plans to be in more than 14 cities and multiple countries in the next six months.

Additionally, it is rolling out new complementary products, services and categories, including home appliances and electronics; Market, with over 40,000 grocery items with same-day or next-day delivery; and buy now, pay later offering Calii Pay. The funding will also enable the company to triple its headcount on its way to surpassing 10,000 daily orders.

“To truly crack the $1 trillion groceries market in LatAm, we understand that we cannot be a premium service, charging 20% more than supermarket; therefore, we’re rebuilding and automating the grocery supply chain from first principles, injecting tech and data in every layer, in order to deliver ultra-freshness with savings,” Arrambide Montemayor added.

Cana Technology raises glass to new capital as it readies beverage printer for market

Following nearly four years in the prototype phase, Cana Technology is unveiling what it calls the “world’s first molecular beverage printer” after securing $30 million in funding from venture foundry The Production Board.

If you’re wondering exactly what this might be, it’s basically a SodaStream meets a computer printer. The smart connected device is about the size of a toaster, sits on your kitchen counter and can produce an infinite variety of beverages, from juice to coffee to cocktails, by recombining it with water in your home, all from one “printer” cartridge, by using a touch screen.

Here’s where the “molecular” technology comes into play: Cana focused on identifying the basic set of ingredients, basically deconstructing beverages to figure out what makes it taste like a certain drink, Lance Kizer, Cana’s chief science officer, told TechCrunch.

Once you remove the water, there is a small volume of drink that you are actually consuming, around 5% to 10%, so Cana concentrated those ingredients and loaded them into a cartridge that can hold more than 100 different beverages. The company has partnered with certain brands for drinks and also created their own combinations.

“It is all of the same ingredients that you consume in drinks, so we are not recreating them,” Kizer said. “Quality is important, and we are focusing on making beverages in a novel way, and we have now created hundreds of them.”

Not only do you have hundreds of drinks at your fingertips, you also can customize them to your taste: add more sugar or less sugar, and for the alcoholic drinks, more or less alcohol. While learning about the device, I was able to try a few of the drinks — cold brew coffee, root beer and a black cherry mojito — and thought the flavors were more bold than their traditional counterparts and the overall taste had a smooth finish.

Each cartridge holds one to three months’ worth of beverages, and the device senses when the cartridge is low and automatically reorders. The cartridges are designed to be sent back for recycling, Kizer added

Cana’s goal is to rebuild the $2 trillion beverage industry while also saving waste from going into landfills and excessive water being used at the same time. CEO Matt Mahar explained that Cana’s prototype would save the typical American household roughly 100 beverage containers per month. At scale, Cana could reduce the use of plastic and glass containers, water waste and the CO2 emissions of the global beverage manufacturing complex by more than 80%.

The new funding is being heavily invested into the supply chain and continued technology development, Mahar said. The company currently has 35 employees, and he expects to double that this year.

Mahar said the company is still working on the device’s price point, but that it will be cheaper than retail prices per use. By the end of February, he expected to have full data on both pricing and when people will be able to begin purchasing the device.

Bharat Vasan, president and COO of The Production Board, said the venture foundry has invested in a number of companies in the food space, and says the Cana team was attractive due to their ambitious outlook on technology and the way they combined hardware, software and science in an entirely new way of making something.

To him, Cana’s device “feels like the Netflix of beverage experiences,” and the same concentration technology used for drinks could be used for a number of other products, like perfume and cosmetics.

“It’s about changing the way things are made and shipped out,” he said. “Distributed manufacturing is made in one place and then shipped out to retailers. Now there is a different system of delivery that is directly to your house that can bypass supply chain constraints. The beverage printer is one manifestation.”

Nourish + Bloom Market, first Black-owned, autonomous grocery, opens in Atlanta

Contactless grocery store Nourish + Bloom Market opened to the public Friday in Trilith’s Town Centre retail district in Atlanta.

Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Jamie and Jilea Hemmings started the grocery store and bistro to offer over 1,000 locally sourced, healthy food products, including produce, meats, baked goods, dairy and prepared meals.

The Hemmings began their startup journey years ago when their oldest child was diagnosed with autism at age two. Jilea Hemmings explained that while researching the role that diet played in autism, they started a food company to take child favorites and give them a healthier spin.

When their family moved to Atlanta two years ago, they again found themselves in a situation of finding healthy foods, and decided to leverage their food and tech background into building Nourish + Bloom with a team of employees.

“We thought of the idea a year ago, during the pandemic, to provide a solution for customers where they wouldn’t have to wait in line or touch anything while checking out,” Jamie Hemmings told TechCrunch.

Market users download the app and enter their payment information. When they are in the store, they scan a code at the turnstile, and that creates the digital cart. The user can walk through the store, and a combination of 30 cameras and weighted shelves monitor and track that person’s shopping. When the user leaves the store, their payment method is charged, and they receive a receipt on the app.

The bistro is open for breakfast and has an all-day menu of food and drinks inspired by the Hemmings’ Caribbean and New York origins. And even though the experience is frictionless, Jamie Hemmings said there are staff members to assist shoppers.

In addition to shopping inside the store, people who are within three miles of Nourish + Bloom can utilize the market’s delivery robots that are temperature controlled. The user reads off their order number and the hatch opens up for them to access their purchase.

Prior to opening today, the market was in beta testing for two months. Autonomous grocery stores are more popular in other countries, but are gaining traction, putting Nourish + Bloom up there with the likes of Amazon Go, 7-Eleven and Walmart, which is tapping autonomous robots for delivery. Other companies, for example Sensei, Standard Cognition, Zippin, Grabango, AiFi and Trigo, are all creating cashierless technologies.

“Big players are still trying to perfect this, and here are these two motivated entrepreneurs whom we have watched work on this for the last year,” Rob Parker, president of Trilith, said. “They have now accomplished it and are set to scale it.”

Meanwhile, the Hemmings’ company is in the midst of raising capital to expand Nourish + Bloom across the U.S. Within the next six months, they will be scouting their next location in Atlanta and also looking in Florida and Texas. Its foundation is also working with companies, like Microsoft, on creating STEM and mentorship programs for underserved populations.

Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa

Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.

The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.

Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.

Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.

“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.

Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”

Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”

“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”

“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”

Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.

Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.

Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.

Morocco’s Chari valued at $100M in bridge round as it looks to pilot BNPL services

Moroccan B2B e-commerce and retail startup Chari confirmed to TechCrunch that it has secured a bridge round at a $100 million valuation.

The bridge round welcomed new investors Khwarizmi Ventures, Air Angels and Afri Mobility, the venture capital arm of AKWA Group.

They join existing investors (Y Combinator, Rocket Internet, Global Founders Capital, Plug n Play, Orange Ventures, Harvard University Management Company, Village Capital and P1 Ventures) who invested in Chari’s $5 million seed round last October at $70 million.

Like many startups playing in the B2B e-commerce space across the continent, Chari digitizes the largely fragmented FMCG sector in Morocco and Tunisia.

Chari operates as a mobile app, allowing small retailers in these two countries to order products from partnering FMCG multinationals and local manufacturers and get items in less than 24 hours.

Last October, the YC-backed company acquired Moroccan ledger book Karny.ma. The Khatabook-esque platform provides credit and bookkeeping services to about 50,000 merchants. It allows these merchants to handle the credit they give to their clients.

The Karny acquisition and bridge round fits into Chari’s strategy to provide payment facilities. It puts the company in a sweet position to offer financial services, particularly buy now, pay later, to its retailers.

“Chari will use the money of this bridge round to test the BNPL services with its existing customers. Upon successful results, Chari will acquire a local credit company to enable shop owners to lend money to their end-users and further grow their business,” said chief executive Ismael Belkhayat in a statement.

Karny gives Chari valuable data on the loans provided by grocery stores to their customers and allows Chari to credit-assess the unbanked shop owners, determining the most applicable payment terms to give each.

So, in essence, Karny data allows Chari to find out about the items sold by the shop owners to their end clients and the amount lent. Through its internal closed-loop digital wallet, Chari will now offer payment terms and BNPL options to some of its shop owners based on their date of registration, order frequency, average basket order and amount of money lent to their end consumers.

Belkhayat, who founded the company with Sophia Alj, said Chari has selected a few shop owners to test run this. Based on the four criteria, merchants can have a negative balance on their digital wallets; the ceiling is between -$100 to -$500 and no more than 30 days without charge.

Once it gets operations right in Morocco, Chari plans to expand this BNPL service to Tunisia and other French-speaking countries in Africa.

BNPL services are starting to experience strong growth in Africa due to the rapid penetration of e-commerce and the effects of the pandemic.

Several BNPL services cater to consumers, such as Nigeria’s Carbon Zero, South Africa’s Payflex (recently acquired by Australian BNPL Zip) and Kenya’s LipaLater (recently raised $12 million in equity and debt). Others serve businesses like TradeDepot, a Nigerian company similar to Chari, while some make infrastructural plays like Nigeria’s ThankUCash.

Usually, companies raise debt financing for their BNPL initiatives; most of the players, as mentioned above, have done so. But Chari opted not to. According to Belkhayat, the reason was that the debt venture funds Chari was in talks with wanted to charge the company as high as 15% in interest rates.

“Since this is just a pilot, I prefer to raise the money at a high valuation from funds that could help me with my strategy. I get a little diluted, but in exchange, I get a lot of help from experienced founders,” he said, explaining Chari’s high valuation at seed level and why it only raised equity. “Once the pilot succeeds, I will need much more funding for my working capital requirement and will raise debt instead of diluting equity.”