Tunisian enterprise AI startup InstaDeep raises $100M from Alpha, BioNTech, Google

A recent survey carried out by CNBC reported that 81% of executives worldwide say AI will play a prominent and critical role in how their businesses operate this year.

Companies are phasing from the first generation of AI, which deals with pattern, text and image recognition, to decision-making AI, which helps them make timely decisions in complex spaces.

InstaDeep, a Tunis and London-based enterprise AI startup that creates decision-making systems for solving real-world problems, has raised $100 million in Series B financing led by Alpha Intelligence Capital and CDIB.

BioNTech (the company behind Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine), Chimera Abu Dhabi, Deutsche Bahn’s DB Digital Ventures, Google, G42 and Synergie participated in the round.

InstaDeep was founded by Karim Beguir and Zohra Slim in 2014. The Tunisian startup, headquartered in London with offices in Paris, Tunis, Lagos, Dubai and Cape Town, uses advanced machine learning techniques to bring AI to applications within an enterprise environment.

Beguir, the chief executive officer, on a call with TechCrunch, said the eight-year-old company’s AI and machine learning solves an array of challenges.

They can range from a large shipping company finding ways to efficiently transport thousands of containers to a railway station, with more than 30,000 kilometres of railway, trying to automate scheduling for 10,000 trains. Other examples are the design of advanced therapeutics with silicon and routing components on a printed circuit board.

These types of problems, though in different verticals, have similarities. InstaDeep uses reinforcement learning, a kind of machine learning that helps design optimization strategies and tackles them simultaneously.

In a statement, the company said it is currently working on a moonshot product to automate railway scheduling with Deutsche Bahn. The rail operator is the largest in Europe. 

Two years ago, InstaDeep formed a multi-year strategic collaboration with BioNTech to launch a joint AI innovation lab. The lab’s mandate was to deploy the latest advances in AI and ML to develop novel immunotherapies.

One of its best efforts came in late November when it created an early warning system (EWS) for detecting high-risk SARS-CoV-2 variants. Per a report by FT, this EWS identified more than 90% of World Health Organization (WHO) designated variants on average two months ahead of time and detected Omicron three days before it was classified as a variant of concern by the WHO.

InstaDeep also collaborates with Google’s AI research divisions to create an early detection system for desert locust outbreaks in Africa; it has worked on AI initiatives and has published joint research with DeepMind and Google Research.

A common theme with these partnerships is that all three organizations are investors in InstaDeep’s new financing round.

“With them being our partners and customers, they’ve been able to see firsthand what InstaDeep platform and the team can achieve,” said Beguir. “So we see it as a significant milestone and also sort of a vote of confidence in our capabilities and products that they are investing having worked very closely with us on difficult problems for years.”

Karim Beguir

Karim Beguir (InstaDeep CEO)

Beguir and Slim bootstrapped InstaDeep from 2014 to 2018, pumping revenue from clients back into the business acquiring new talent and expanding. In 2019, the Tunisian startup raised a $7 million Series A round from pan-African private equity firm AfricInvest and New York-based Endeavor Catalyst to scale its systems.

InstaDeep has established itself as a global company using AI to solve complex problems with significant monetary value. For example, building one kilometre of railway costs hundreds of millions of dollars. So, providing an intelligent system — which is one of InstaDeep’s applications — that can optimize train traffic, and manage constraints better, is highly marketable.

With the new funding, the enterprise AI company plans to accelerate the launch of disruptive AI products across biotech, logistics, transportation and electronics manufacturing. Advancing its computing infrastructure, expanding into the U.S. and hiring more talent is also in its use of funds strategy.  

InstaDeep currently has over 170 employees. More than 130 are in AI research, engineering, ML and DevOps departments, while half of the team is based in its African offices: South Africa, Nigeria and Tunisia.

When InstaDeep launched, Africa wasn’t in the picture detailing AI’s contribution to global economic growth. And while that picture hasn’t changed so much, InstaDeep is one of the few African companies, including South Africa’s Aerobotics and hearX Group, trying to change that status quo and give Africa have a say in shaping the future of AI.

“We’ve managed to build a culture of high standards and prove that the talents in Africa are capable of being competitive, working and collaborating with the very best,” said Beguir. “That’s the story we’ve been able to nurture. And today, we’re proud to have a team which is now over multiple countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa, but has some very passionate African AI researchers, engineers making a tangible contribution.”

Beguir mentioned on the call that at the time InstaDeep started with “two laptops, $2,000 and a lot of enthusiasm,” many investors and onlookers within the African tech and AI space doubted the company’s goal to collaborate with the likes of DeepMind and Google.

But if technology has taught us anything, location doesn’t pose a barrier in getting global customers. And this holds more true for AI and deep tech technology as long as companies have access to knowledge, talent with experience and an open AI community.

Beguir, half Tunisian and half French, grew up in the North African country but studied engineering and mathematics in France and the U.S.

After a classical career background, Beguir said he started InstaDeep to prove that African talent could be competitive, make a difference in deep tech and collaborate and compete with the best in the world.

“It is possible to create a globally competitive company with strong African roots, but also well integrated into the world working on genuine deep-tech innovation, and doing things that haven’t been done before,” the CEO said. “That’s been our story so far, and we can’t wait to take it to the next level with our investors and partners and try to have a positive impact on the ecosystems in which we operate and all the partners with whom we work.”

Fintech startup SellersFunding raises $166.5M in equity, credit round to support e-commerce sellers

SellersFunding secured $166.5 million in a combination of Series A equity funding and a credit facility to continue developing its technology and payments platforms for e-commerce businesses.

Northzone led the round and was joined by Endeavor Catalyst and Fasanara. SellersFunding CEO Ricardo Pero did not disclose the funding breakdown, but did say the company previously raised two seed rounds for a total of $40 million in equity and more than $100 million in credit facilities, including one that the company was expanding to $200 million.

SellersFunding, with offices in Florida, New York and London, created a digital platform that delivers financial tools and resources to streamline global commerce for thousands of marketplaces, including working capital, cross-border cash management, tax solutions and business valuation.

Pero got the idea for the company after spending 20 years in the financial industry. He left JP Morgan in 2016 with a drive to start his own company. He was consulting for a friend selling on Amazon who asked him to help make sense of Amazon’s fees and to review the next year’s budget because the friend was struggling to keep up with growth.

“I helped him address the fees issue, but when I went to talk to traditional lenders, I found that they have no clue about e-commerce and the needs of SMEs,” he said.

In addition to being a lending source for businesses selling on these marketplaces, SellersFunding leverages sales data provided by the marketplaces and e-commerce platforms to create sales and cash flow estimates based on the credit limits given to clients so that owners can better understand the fees they are paying and make more informed decisions.

He founded the company in 2017, and today has over 30,000 registered users and is approaching $10 billion in sales volume that is feeding data into SellersFunding’s daily models. The company makes money as both a lender and on fees it charges for payments collected by its customers. Merchants can collect money from marketplaces and pay their suppliers in local or foreign currency.

SellersFunding has consistently grown 300% year over year, Pero said. As such, he intends to use the new funding to scale globally, expand the team, create a marketing budget and look for two small acquisitions in the U.S. and Europe.

The company will continue to invest on the payments side and to promote cross-border payments.

“When I look at the payments landscape, companies are competing on pricing and I don’t think we will ever have a focus there, but instead will compete on customer experience,” Pero added. “Our core business will always be lending and our core investments will be payments and technology, but then we will extend to other services that our clients want.”

With an eye on expanding internationally, it fit to bring on Northzone as a partner, he added. The venture firm is based in Europe and was of a similar vision for thinking globally.

Jeppe Zink, general partner at Northzone, said via email that Pero and his team “are the most experienced in this category” and are building a category leader that is “more experienced and understanding of the lending side than its competitors.”

“We have seen this massive rise in e-shopping, most of the new ones coming from marketplaces like Amazon and Shopify, and if you look at the sellers, thousands are small businesses sourcing their goods which means that they are very important customers,” Zink added. “Normal banks like Barclay can’t check credit. SellersFinding is helping small businesses get this credit, and rightly so. In the same way we thought neobanks won with accounts created when it comes to delivering credit and banking products, they are nowhere to be found yet.”

Carsome raises $50M for its used-car sales platform in Southeast Asia

Carsome, a Malaysia-based marketplace for trading users cars, has closed a new $50 million financing round to fend off its rivals and grow its business in Southeast Asian markets.

The new financing round, dubbed Series C, was funded by MUFG Innovation Partners (MUIP), the corporate venture capital arm and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), Daiwa PI Partners, the private equity arm of Japan’s securities group Daiwa Securities, Endeavor Catalyst, and Ondine Capital.

Existing investors including Gobi Partners and Convergence Ventures also participated in the round, which pushes four-year-old startups’s total raise to date to $85 million.

Carsome operates one of the largest car trading platforms in Southeast Asia, connecting individuals who wish to sell cars with dealers. The startup, which is operational in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, claims its platform sees more than 40,000 cars worth more than $300 million trade on the platform. The startup, which employs about 700 people and has been used by more than 6,000 dealers, also offers dealers and sellers with financing options.

Carsome uses an online auction model to conduct sales, with prospective cars typically listed the day after they are submitted by consumers following a check-up conducted by the startup’s staff.

That approach allows dealers to check in at a set time each day to look over the cars on offer, while the focus on vetting autos quickly — Carsome can dispatch vehicle checkers directly to a prospective seller’s home — means that consumers can quickly get a sale.

The auction model adds competition and the potential for a seller to make more money than they originally anticipated. That’s a dynamic, as my former colleague explained, that is tricky to replicate in other static sale models.

Eric Cheng, co-founder and chief executive of Carsome, told TechCrunch that the startup is attempting to challenge “opaque and inefficient” middle parties that “exploit the misinformation in the market.”

He added, “we want to establish a brand and a standard that advocates trust, transparency, consistency of service and quality assurance across the region that people and businesses can rely on to make their purchasing decisions.”

The startup, which competes with a number of players including Carro in Singapore, plans to use the fresh capital to expand to more markets in Southeast Asia such as the Philippines.

Cheng said Carsome aspires to become “the Visa/Master network of auto transactions, and build a collaborative ecosystem of partners to provide the best experience to consumers in Southeast Asia.”

Blueground raises $20 million for flexible apartment rentals

Blueground, the startup providing turnkey flexible rental apartments, has raised $20 million in a round led by Athens-based VentureFriends, with participation from Endeavor Catalyst, Dubai’s Jabbar Internet Group, and serial entrepreneur Kevin Ryan. Ryan – who helped found MongoDB, Gilt Groupe, Zola, and others – will also join Blueground’s Board of Directors.

It’s no secret that remote work and frequent business travel are becoming more and more commonplace. Now, as a result, a growing number of people are shying away from lengthy rental or lease commitments and are instead turning to companies like Blueground for more flexible short-term solutions.

Blueground is trying to be the go-to option for individuals moving or traveling to a city for as little as a month, or any duration longer. Similar to flexible office space providers, Blueground partners with major property owners to sign long-term leases for units it then furnishes and rents out with more flexible terms.

Users can rent listings for anywhere between one month to five years and rates are set on a monthly basis, which can often lead to more favorable prices over medium-to-long-term stays relative to the short-term pricing structures commonly used by hospitality companies.

Filling hospitality gaps and easing rental friction

CEO Alex Chatzieleftheriou is intimately familiar with the value flexible leasing can unlock. Before founding Blueground, Chatzieleftheriou worked as a consultant for McKinsey, where he was frequently sent off to projects in far-off cities for months at a time – living in 15 different cities over just seven years.

However, no matter how much time Alex logged in hotels, he constantly felt the frustration and mental strain of not having a stable personal living arrangement.

“I spent so much time in hotels but they never really resembled a home. They didn’t have enough space or enough privacy,” Chatzieleftheriou told TechCrunch. “But renting an apartment can be a huge pain in these cities. They can be hard to find, they usually have a minimum rental term of a year or more, and you usually have to deal with filling out paperwork and buying furniture.” 

Knowing there were thousands of people at his company alone dealing with the same frustrations, Alex launched what would become Blueground, beginning with a handful of apartments in his home city of Athens, Greece.

Chatzieleftheriou and his team structured the platform to make the rental process as seamless as possible for the needs of flexible renters like himself. Through a quick plug-and-play checkout flow – more similar to the booking process for a hotel or Airbnb – renters can lock down an apartment without having to deal with the painful, costly and time-consuming traditional rental process. Tenants are also able to switch to any other Blueground listing during their rental period if their preferences change or if they want to explore different locations during their stay.

Every Blueground listing also comes completely furnished by the company’s design team so renters don’t have to deal with buying, transporting – and eventually selling – furniture. And each apartment comes outfitted with digital and connected infrastructure so that tenants can monitor their apartment and arrange maintenance, housekeeping and other services directly through Blueground’s mobile app. 

The value proposition is also fairly straight-forward for the landlords Blueground partners with, as they avoid costs related to marketing and coordinating with fragmented brokers to fill open units, while also benefitting from steady rental payments, tenant vetting and free property management. 

The offering certainly seems to be compelling for renters – While Chatzieleftheriou initially focused on serving business travelers and those moving for work, he quickly realized the market for flexible leasing was in fact much bigger. Blueground’s sales have tripled over the past three years and after its expansion in the US last year, Blueground now hosts 1,700 listings in ten cities across three continents.

“The trend of flexible and seamless real estate is bigger and is happening everywhere,” Chatzieleftheriou said. “A lot of people throughout the real estate sector really want this seamless, turnkey, furnished solution.”

To date, Blueground has raised a total of $28 million and plans to use funds from the latest round for additional hiring and to help the company reach its goal of growing its portfolio to 50,000 units over the next five years.