Egypt’s Pylon gets $19M to scale software for water and electricity distribution companies

Pylon, an Egyptian infrastructure management platform for water and electricity companies in emerging markets, has raised a $19 million seed round.

The round, a combination of debt and equity, was led by U.S.-based Endure Capital, which is backed by British International Investment (formerly CDC Group), the development finance institution of the U.K. government. Participating investors include Cathexis Ventures, Loftyinc Ventures, Khawarizmi Ventures and several unnamed angel investors.

Pylon currently operates in Egypt and the Philippines. Part of the seed investment will allow Pylon to expand to other countries in emerging markets, including Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. This funding is the company’s first venture round. CEO Ahmed Ashour said he and his co-founder, CTO Omar Radi, had bootstrapped Pylon since 2017.

Ashour worked in the metering and utility business for more than a decade and led the implementation of smart metering technologies — particularly hardware– across Africa, Europe, Asia and the Middle East for various companies.

In 2016, he found a gap in the market for solutions tailored to the needs of water and electricity distributors in Egypt and other emerging markets. He said these entities used software designed for developed economies with different needs and challenges from the likes of Siemens, Oracle and SAP that couldn’t meet distributors’ demands in emerging markets.

“We have seen them [foreign software] used in other projects but eventually experienced great failures. We started [Pylon] to replace them because their solution failed on the ground,” Ashour told TechCrunch on a call.

The chief executive said Pylon solves several challenges for water and distribution companies. First, they incur a very high rate of uncollected bills and thus miss out on huge revenues. Second, they experience high electricity costs and water theft. Thirdly, technical losses happen on the grid and the network — whether for lack of maintenance or law enforcement. These three issues contribute to these entities losing 40% of their revenues and give rise to the last issue — these entities being unable to upgrade their solution or have a smart infrastructure in place due to high costs.

Pylon builds solutions for these water and electricity distribution companies to make them efficient and stanch the bleeding — the company calculates hundreds of billions of losses (in dollars) across emerging markets per year. It’s a massive opportunity to increase the aggregate revenues and top line of those utilities by 50%.

Here’s how it works. Pylon’s software gathers data from the grids, analyzes it, and detects where theft and losses occur along the supply process. It then automates billing processes for the companies, similar to how telecom providers in these markets have done over the years.

With no upfront investment, Pylon says it can help utility companies reduce their losses to 8%, in addition to improving their top line. The company said it doesn’t charge its customers an upfront cost for its hardware. However, its smart metering-as-a-service (SMaaS) model makes it easy for cash-conscious utility companies to deploy its solution at scale.

We believe that the electricity sector is following the footsteps of the telecom industry and the curve is starting to show. So we just mirrored the billing solution, and with the data detection, we can detect who exactly is stealing electricity and where the losses are happening,” said the CEO.

“Also, since those utilities are cash-strapped and cannot upgrade, we offer them this solution as a subscription model. So it’s a low-capex model where they subscribe with us, pay around 10-12% of the initial cost of their previous solution, and can recuperate the revenues. So just by signing with us, they start making more money and increasing their top line and bottom line.”

Over 12 different utilities (seven in the private sector and five in public) use Pylon. They serve more than 1 million metering endpoints across 26 separate meter models in Egypt and the Philippines.

Pylon grew its revenues by 3.5x in 2021 and claims to be profitable. But aside from building a thriving business, the founders are particular about how Pylon’s smart electricity grids foster sustainability of the environment.

We believe big time in our role in helping the environment and helping with the challenges that we are currently facing,” the CEO said. “Emissions coming from the electricity sector is one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions on the planet. We are able to make electricity efficient and reduce [emissions] by 25% when utilities subscribe with us.” 

One of its goals is to achieve 1 gigaton of total CO2 emissions reduction by 2035. On the other hand, water losses in emerging markets also reach over 45 million cubic meters per day. “Pylon can reduce this by up to 22%, potentially providing enough water to serve over 40 million people,” the company said.

The Y Combinator-backed startup believes the market opportunity in the water and electricity distribution space is worth over $20 billion across 10 emerging markets. However, it is currently focusing on one-fourth of that figure which covers Egypt, the Phillippines, Brazil and Africa. Ultimately, the plan is for the Egyptian startup to capture more market share over time, Ashour said, and an expansion to Southeast Asia, another fragmented market, is in the cards.

But these are all long-term projections. In the near future, next year to be exact, Ashour said Pylon plans to reach 3 million meters across its markets, representing a 4x year-on-year growth. The startup is already working with multiple companies across two continents that have deployed more than 2 million endpoints of Pylon’s smart grid technology across 15 distribution companies.

Getting its technology right will be essential in this next phase of growth. Therefore, securing this seed financing — one of the largest in the MENA region — presents Pylon with the chance to advance its engineering and product development.

Tala grabs $145M to offer more financial services in emerging markets

Tala, an emerging markets digital lender that offers loans between $10 to $500 to consumers and small business owners, has raised $145 million in Series E funding.

Upstart, a company founded by ex-Googlers Dave Girouard, Anna Counselman and Paul Gu, led the round. DeFi network Stellar Enterprise Foundation participated, alongside new investors Kindred Ventures and the J. Safra Group.

Existing investors IVP, Revolution Growth and Lowercase Capital also joined the round that brings Tala’s total funding raised to a little over $360 million. The new investment values Tala north of $800 million, according to a source close to the company.

However, unlike the last financing round where Tala raised $100 million debt financing in addition to its $110 million Series D, the microlender only raised equity this time.

In 2011, Shivani Siroya founded Tala after leaving her job as an investment banking analyst. The idea came while engaging in some research for the United Nations Population Fund. She discovered that many people she talked to in emerging markets were creditworthy but lacked immediate access to credit and quick loans.

To add to that, over 2 billion of these people have limited access to financial services and working capital per World Bank statistics.

Carefully studying the issues causing this problem, Siroya concluded that the financial system in these markets was essentially not designed to meet the needs of the underserved segment. And Tala could change that; and so far, it has (to an extent). 

In 2014, Tala first launched its mobile application to offer credit and collateral-free loans to consumers in Kenya but has since expanded to the Philippines, Mexico and, more recently, India. The company uses users’ phone data and their activity (for instance, the frequency and timeliness of paying phone bills) to create credit scores that determine the amount of credit a user can receive.

More than 6 million customers across these four markets use Tala, and the company claims to have disbursed over $2.7 billion worth of credit since its inception.

And with 12,000 new users signing up every day to access credit, Tala is making a transition to offer a broader range of financial services around an account and capture more value across the supply chain.

“Our Android application has allowed over 6 million individuals to access our first product, which was access to credit, said Siroya to TechCrunch over a call. “And now we’re moving beyond that to become that full financial account for our customers. And, again, across our markets, that’s what we’re looking to do with this fundraise.”

The founder and CEO emphasized that the new product offerings will help customers “use, save, protect and grow their money better.”

Think of this as a credit-led approach to digital banking that leverages a credit card or similar offering (in Tala’s case, credit via mobile phones) and provides other services around a bank account. Neobanks such as Brazil’s Nubank and Neon and Nigeria’s FairMoney and Carbon have explored this model.

So what prompted Tala to go this route? According to Siroya, users reduced how they used cash during the pandemic and showed Tala different pain points for why customers needed more financial products beyond credit.

“Because of the relationship and the trust that we have with our customers, we really wanted to move quickly to be able to meet those needs,” Siroya said.

With Tala, users have access to an account and other tools to borrow, save and manage their money, the company said in a statement. In turn, Tala claims it will offer an expanded range of personalized credit options, including longer-term loans to match customers’ income cycles.

tala official

Integral to this new direction is the use of crypto and decentralized finance to enable the company’s roadmap.

The PayPal-backed company says it wants to develop the first mass-market crypto product for emerging markets and making crypto affordable to its users. Then, Tala plans to use blockchain-based finance to refine its capital market strategy and connect investors and borrowers on the Tala platform.

Upstart and the Stellar Development Foundation (SDF), two investors in the round, are critical to this next phase of growth for Tala. An AI lending platform, Upstart has assisted banks and credit unions originate more than $13 billion worth of loans. At the same time, SDF — the nonprofit arm of the Stellar network — leverages interoperability with the world’s existing financial systems.

“For us, it really kind of matches both things. One is continuing to refine and become even better in terms of our credit offerings,” said Siroya. “And then the other side is really thinking about how do we accelerate this experience and leverage crypto with these platforms.”

Following the announcement, Paul Gu, the co-founder of Upstart and Denelle Dixon, the executive director and CEO of the Stellar Development Foundation, will join Tala’s board of directors.

During our conversation, I referred to Branch, a close competitor to Tala, and noted it was interesting both platforms concurrently thought to provide other services besides credit.

Like Tala, Branch started as a digital lender offering loans to customers in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and India. But now the company, backed by Visa, IFC and Andreessen Horowitz, is maturing into a digital bank that provides bill payments, money transfer and investment features.

While Siroya can spot the coincidence, she doesn’t shy away from lauding her company above other seeming competition.

“I do think that, across all of our markets, we’re really seeing that many fintechs are coming in and seeing the same opportunity. But again, when you think about the design of those platforms and products, there is nobody really that has the global breath that Tala has for underserved segment across our four markets,” the CEO said.

With its new capital, Tala plans to also grow its team across the four markets it serves and the U.S., where it is headquartered. The company says it will also pull forward plans for geographic expansion, though it kept numb on what markets they could be.

US-listed SPACs have a new target: Latin American tech companies

There has been an unprecedented IPO boom of tech companies in the Brazilian stock exchange, which is transformative for a market that was traditionally dominated by utilities, mining, oil and financial companies.

The trend continues to be strong; in February alone, growth companies like Bemobi, Westwing, Mobly and Mosaico went public. Mosaico, for example, was 20x oversubscribed and went up 70% on its first trading day. The same is true for other companies like Meliuz, Enjoei and Neogrid, up 173%, 53% and 74%, respectively, since their listing just a few months ago.

But what is even more surprising is that now, new special-purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are raising money in Nasdaq with a mandate to buy Latin American private growth companies, which would be completely unthinkable just a year ago.

The opportunity for SPAC mergers in the U.S. has become quite competitive, as almost 300 SPACs, which raised over $90 billion, are now competing to find deals before the deadline. As a result, it has become more common to see SPACs with global mandates seeking to acquire foreign growth companies and list them in the U.S. to benefit from better multiples.

Just in 2021, eight Asian-sponsored SPACs raised over $2.3 billion in the Nasdaq/New York Stock Exchange, already surpassing the entire volume of 2020. More recently, it looks like the activity level may pick up in Brazil, and, potentially, in other Latin American countries, with $1.1 billion of Brazil-focused SPACs coming into fruition.

Latin America takes the global lead in VC directed to female co-founders

When Flavia Deutsch and Paula Crespi were raising a groundbreaking $1.7 million seed round for their parenting startup in Brazil, they had to turn away male investors.

“The men were already writing us checks, but the women — we had to convince them,” Deutsch explained of the seed round for Theia, which ended the year as the largest all-female founded company raise in Latin America. “For every male investor we had, we wanted one female investor as well,” Deutsch said. And for good reason.

Many studies have established that female-founded companies outperform their all-male counterparts. Boston Consulting Group reports that for every dollar a female founder or co-founder raises, she generates 2.5X more revenue than a male founder.1 First Round Capital’s research held that the female-founded companies it backed performed 63% better than all-male founding teams.2 The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s showed that return on investment from women-led teams is 35% higher than their all-male counterparts.3 AllRaise, a nonprofit promoting women in VC, found that “companies with women on their founding teams are likely to exit at least one year faster compared to the rest of the market, and the number of exits for companies with at least one female founder is growing at a faster rate year-over-year than exits for companies with only male founders.”4 Jen Neundorfer, founding partner at Jane VC, succinctly explains her fund’s thesis of investing in female founders as, “investing in an overlooked asset class that is overperforming.” After all, it’s a “trillion-dollar opportunity.”5

And in the 2020s, much of that opportunity will be in emerging markets. The first year that the largest IPOs globally came from emerging markets was 2017. Since then, it has been a straight line up and to the right. Nazar Yasin, who invests in emerging markets as the founder of Rise Capital, says, “this trend isn’t going away.” Given that most GDP growth now coming from emerging markets, where most global internet users live, “the future of market capitalization growth in the internet sector globally belongs to emerging markets.”

Latin America takes the global lead in funding women

And it just may belong to the women who start companies there.

New data from Gene Teare at Crunchbase shows that Latin America currently takes the global lead in investment dollars directed to women.

via Crunchbase

In 2019, investments into mixed female-male founding teams represented 16% of dollars invested in Latin America, 9% in the U.S. and only 8% in Europe.

This number includes a $400 million Series F into Nubank, the Brazilian challenger bank co-founded by Cristina Junqueira, who was — not for the first time — pregnant at the time of the raise. Junqueira is not only the female co-founder currently leading the largest neobank in the world, she is also the female co-founder currently leading the world’s largest venture-backed company.

via Crunchbase

Overall, total investment dollars into both mixed male-female teams and female-only teams represented 17% of total dollars invested in Latin America, 13% in the U.S. and 9% in Europe.

In terms of deal volume, mixed female-male founded teams make up 15% of investments in 2019 in Latin America, in comparison with 14% in the U.S. and 11% in Europe. One contributor is fintech. In Latin America, 35% of fintech companies have a female co-founder, 5X more than the global average of 7%.6

That said, in terms of funding all-female teams, the U.S. still leads. In Latin America, the women-only teams made up 4% of investment deals in 2019, on par with Europe but behind the U.S. average of 8%.

Read the conclusion, Women are the secret ingredient in Latin America’s outsized returns, on Extra Crunch.