Zencargo raises $42M to expand its digital-first freight forwarding platform internationally

While consumers and businesses continue to use their purchasing power to spin the wheels of the globalized economy, one of the companies that’s built a technology platform to help that economy operate more smoothly is announcing an investment to double down on growth.

Zencargo, which has built a digital platform to enable freight forwarding — the process by which companies organize and track the movements of items they are making and selling (and the components needed for those items) — has raised £30 million (about $42 million). Alex Hersham, the CEO who co-founded the company with Richard Fattal (CCO) and Jan Riethmayer, said that London-based Zencargo will be using the funding to open offices in The Netherlands, Hong Kong and the U.S.; to more than double its headcount to 350 from 150 today; and to begin to make moves into trade finance — a critical lever for facilitating the trading activities that are the bread and butter of Zencargo’s business.

The Series B is being led by Digital+ Partners, with HV Capital, which led its previous round, also participating. Zencargo is not disclosing its valuation but the company — which provides services to both to companies and distributors like Amazon to ship goods to its fulfillment centers; and brands like Vivienne Westwood, Swoon Furniture, and Soho Home — said that it is on track to make £100 million in revenues this year, and £200 million in 2022.

That is against the backdrop of some major world events that have both proven to be challenges as well as opportunities for the startup.

Brexit in the UK has created quite a mess for moving goods in and out of the country and into Europe (difficult but ultimately a net positive for Zencargo: it helps facilitate some aspects of that movement for its clients). Covid-19, meanwhile, has impacted economies (again: a difficult impact but also a positive, in that people are spending more money on goods for themselves and less on travel, leading to more demand for shipping those goods around the globe).

The Suez Canal blockage, on the other hand, also continues to loom (not great: Hersham said that Zencargo and others are still dealing with the fallout of those delays, although it’s highlighted the need for blended approaches when it comes to moving goods, with some items shipped slower by sea, and others faster by air or road). And there is the growing priority of how shipping impacts carbon footprints (an area of opportunity, interestingly: Zencargo can provide more efficient routing, and also services to consider how to carbon offset shipping activities).

The more general challenge that Zencargo is tackling goes hand in hand with our existence as consumers.

Many of us do not blink an eye when we go online or to a store to procure something, and we get whatever that happens to be right away.

But the simplicity of wanting and subsequently obtaining goods sits on top of a huge, and hugely complex, logistics operation. It might involve components, assembly, or growing and processing things, shipping from one place to another, passing through multiple distribution and shipping hubs, customs, retailers and finally delivery to your store, or directly to you — a logistics chain that, taking all the world’s goods into account, has been estimated to be worth up to $12 trillion annually. Freight forwarding is the process by which all of that logistics works as it should, and in itself accounts for hundreds of billions of dollars in spend, and potentially more than $1 trillion in costs when things go awry.

Traditionally, a lot of freight forwarding work has been done offline, a messy process involving paper and faxing, prone to mistakes, over- and under-supply based on sales and typically hard to scrutinize because of the lack of centralized information. Companies like Zencargo — along with others in the same space like Flexport — have built digitized platforms to manage all of this, tracking items by SKU data, matching shipments with real-time insights into sales and demand, and balancing different kinds of freight options to provide the right items at the right time. (Zencargo works across sea, air and land freight, with sea accounting for about half of all of its traffic, Hersham said.)

Zencargo’s services arguably will continue to see demand growing in line with the growth of the logistics industry, but the curve balls of the last several years, and in the last 12 months in particular, that have impacted the shipping business lay out an interesting road ahead for the startup in the future.

“The freight industry has struggled to keep pace with innovation. Archaic processes are still in place across the board, resulting in widespread inefficiencies,” said Patrick Beitel, Managing Director and Founding Partner at Digital+ Partners, in a statement. “Zencargo’s cutting edge technologies, plus deep industry experience and knowledge, are transforming the supply chain, and that marries up perfectly with Digital + Partners’ mission to back companies with best-in-class technology and exceptional management teams. We are honoured to join them on the next stage of their journey.”

Hustle Fund wants to help spawn a new generation of angel investors

Kara Penn is the mother of four daughters and owner of Mission Spark, a management and strategy consulting company.

And now, thanks to Hustle Fund, she is also an angel investor.

Hustle Fund is coming out of stealth today with Angel Squad, a new initiative aimed at making angel investing more accessible to more people. To more people like Colorado-based Penn.

We believe that in order to increase diversity in the startup ecosystem, one thing that we must do is increase diversity — whether it be in regard to gender, race or geography — amongst angel investors,” said Hustle Fund co-founder and general partner Elizabeth Yin.

Via Angel Squad, Hustle Fund specifically aims to build an inclusive investor community, make minimum check sizes low and accessible (think as little as $1,000), provide “angel education” and give investors a way to invest alongside Hustle Fund.

“There’s been this misnomer, or at least I had this incorrect assumption that in order to become an angel investor, you have to be super rich and write $25,000 checks,” Yin told TechCrunch. “But the reality is actually in Silicon Valley, there are all these people running around investing $1,000 checks…and that’s something that’s a lot more accessible than then most people might think. And, part of the value of having this group is then we can accumulate a bunch of smaller checks to then write one larger check for a company.”

So far, Penn has invested in five startups across a range of sectors including real estate, food, apparel and finance. 

She describes herself as “a complete novice” in angel investing, and so far, she’s loving the experience.

I love Hustle Fund’s perspective that great hustlers can look like anyone and come from anywhere,” Penn told TechCrunch. “I’ve enjoyed being in a supportive community with differing levels of expertise, but where every question is welcomed.”

The experience is also broadening her exposure to technology and AI, the collection and use of data and the creation of new marketplaces in ways she never would have been exposed to before.

“As someone whose own company focuses exclusively on strategy in social impact organizations, I am also looking for how founders identify and bring to market creative solutions to complex problems, as well as exposure to a network of innovative people looking to solve hard issues in smart ways,” Penn said. “This exposure is helping me begin to think about applications of these approaches to difficult social problems.”

For some context, Hustle Fund is a venture firm founded by Elizabeth Yin and Eric Bahn, two former 500 Startups partners, with the goal of investing in pre-seed software startups. The firm has traditionally operated by investing $25,000 in a company, usually with a minimum-viable product, and then works with the team to help them grow. It does around 50 investments per year, according to its website. 

It recently closed on $33.6 million for a new fund.

“One of the things most important to us is this bigger mission of wanting to change the way the startup ecosystem is,” Yin said. “I noticed both as an entrepreneur and while running an accelerator, if you have a certain resume, went to certain schools, or were a certain race or gender, you have advantages in starting a company and getting funding. For many people, if you don’t tick those boxes, it can be very challenging. That’s why we’re investing in a lot of founders from all walks of life.”

Hustle Fund Venture Partner Brian Nichols had started a syndicate of Lyft alumni on AngelList. After doing a few deals, he opened up the syndicate to people outside of AngelList.

“I found there was a wide range of people looking to diversify into private markets, from all over the world with all types of backgrounds,” he said. “Hustle Fund and I had similar taste in companies I was investing in and I built a relationship with them in co-investments.”

Today, he’s helping run the fund’s Angel Squad initiative. So far, it has had two cohorts with over 150 investors total and true to the fund’s mission, those investors have been more diverse than typical angel syndicates: 46% of the members are female, 9% are underrepresented minorities and 32% are people who work outside of tech with professional roles such as lawyers, doctors and artists. Just one-third are based in Silicon Valley.

Every week, Angel Squad hosts an event which ranges from networking to a peek behind the curtain at opportunities at Hustle Fund is considering investing in to talking through why or why not to take a meeting with a founder.

“Imagine starting from zero, and if you could skip a bunch of steps and have Elizabeth (Yin) tell you how to do this before you lose a bunch of money in the process of evaluating a startup,” Nichols told TechCrunch. “Angel Squad is exactly what I wish had existed three or four years ago when I became interested in investing.”

Silicon Valley, Yin acknowledges, can be intimidating but the reality is that no one is an expert in everything.

“We’re trying to cultivate an environment where people are very kind — we have a no asshole rule, and that is a safe space where people can learn and feel like they can ask questions, and not have to know everything about angel investing. The reality is most people don’t. And we want to bring new people into this system.”

Besides not being an a-hole, other criteria in becoming a Squad Member include being able to add value and being an accredited investor.

“With rounds as competitive as they are today, we are looking for people who want to be actively supportive of the portfolio companies we’re investing in,” Nichols said. “Every person who wants to join the program is interviewed by someone from our team, who asks questions such as ‘What can you help a founder with?’ We are not looking for passive capital. That’s not super helpful at this point in the ecosystem.

Snack, a ‘Tinder meets TikTok’ dating app, opens to Gen Z investors

Snack, a video-first mobile dating app designed with a younger generation in mind, is opening itself up to Gen Z investors. The startup today announced the launch of its own Gen Z Syndicate on AngelList, which will allow Gen Z community members, influencers, creators and others to participate in the company’s upcoming $2 million SAFE, alongside other funds and angel investors.

The company in February announced $3.5 million in seed funding for its modern, TikTok-style dating app where users post videos to a feed which others then like in order to be matched. Snack believes videos allow users to better showcase their interests and lifestyle, as well as show off their personalities in ways static photos cannot. When two people like each other’s videos, they’re invited to direct message one another.

The experience is very much like engaging with a TikTok that’s built for dating. In fact, Snack is one of the first apps that will be adopting TikTok’s new Login SDK for third-party apps, which gives Snack’s users the ability to reshare their TikTok videos to their dating profiles.

Image Credits: Snack

Snack’s founder, Kim Kaplan, has a history in the dating app market. She previously led product, marketing and revenue at Plenty of Fish, which later sold to Match Group for $575 million in 2015.

“If you think about Plenty of Fish, we really launched off of Google SEO,” Kaplan explains. “Then you had Zoosk and Badoo, which launched off of Facebook — when it was a really early platform and it was easy to get traffic from it. Then you had Tinder and Bumble, which launched off of mobile-first. They were the first apps to come out and design and build with mobile in mind versus the rest of us which were desktop, trying to cram everything into a mobile phone,” she says.

“And I fundamentally believe now that the right opportunity is the distribution on TikTok, as well as influencers. I think that combination of TikTok being the new distribution channel is going to be a massive opportunity — and that’s what we’re trying to leverage,” Kaplan says.

Longer-term, Snack is likely to grow beyond the young, Gen Z demographic. Already, the app is attracting users in their 20’s and early 30’s, thanks to its TikTok ties. But as TikTok naturally ages up, so will Snack.

Snack began fundraising in September of last year, then hired the team, built the app and launched in late February.

Image Credits: Snack

“We’re only about eight weeks into this right now, but we’re seeing a lot of excitement, a lot of user growth,” Kaplan says. “Because of that excitement that’s kind of building, people — a lot of really interesting people — came to the table and said they wanted to invest. But I didn’t have any room left in the previous rounds, so I decided to open up a SAFE.”

As part of that SAFE, Snack is carving out a certain amount to create its own syndicate. That way, Kaplan notes, “we don’t have any carry fees with another person, and [we’re] opening it up to Gen Z investors that want to participate in the round.”

Originally, the carve-out began at $100,000 but there is already enough interest that Kaplan says she expects it to go higher — perhaps a couple hundred thousand or larger, based on demand.

Among the Gen Z investors are VCs who have heard about Snack, but whose fund primarily invests at a later stage. Others are just people the company has been working with and getting advice from while building out the the app.

For example, Kaplan had reach out to the Gen Z Mafia, a group of technologists working to make venture capital and startups more inclusive, to help consult on Snack. The group’s leaders, Emma Salinas and Nicholas Huebecker, are credited with helping Kaplan come up with Snack’s pretzel logo and its brand name.

“Video first dating allows a unique sense of expression that you can’t portray with a few well-crafted words and filtered pictures,” said Huebekcer, of his interest in Snack. “For a mobile-first generation, this new form of authenticity will grow to be necessary. Snack allows users to express their real selves just like they do on TikTok, Snapchat, and other platforms we love,” he added.

Technology investor and Founder at The Innovation Armory, Samuel Natbony, is also joining the SAFE, alongside Monique Woodard (Cake Ventures), Backbone Angels, Shakti Ventures, Christian Winklund (previously CEO of dating app Skout which sold to Meet Group), Andrew Wilkinson and others.

“I want Gen Z to have a seat at the table and help shape what Snack becomes,” says Kaplan. “I want them to have that voice and participate, and be a champion for Snack,” she adds.

This founder raised millions to build Fair, a neobank for immigrants

Fair, a multilingual digital bank and financial services platform, is launching to the public after raising $20 million in 40 days earlier this year.

Founder Khalid Parekh raised the capital primarily from the very demographic that Houston-based Fair aims to serve: from a group consisting of a number of immigrants, many of whom were first-time investors.

“There was not a single check from a VC or bank or from a family office,” Parekh told TechCrunch. “Ninety percent of our investors are minorities or are immigrants like myself that believed in the concept of Fair.”

One could say that it’s also fitting that Fair’s headquarters are in Houston, which at the time of the last census was the most ethnically diverse city in the United States.

Parekh is not your traditional fintech founder. He doesn’t have banking or financial services experience, although he does have experience founding and running a successful company: AMSYS Group, which is valued at nearly $350 million. His mission with Fair is largely personal. Upon arriving in the U.S. from India with just $100 in his pocket 22 years ago, he struggled to not only get a loan but also to open a bank account. 

Image Credits: Founder and CEO Khalid Parekh / Fair

“I was an engineer by background, but was very confused with the American banking system. There is not a lot of help for immigrants who don’t understand it well,” Parekh recalls. “My biggest challenge was sending money back home. There was just a lack of welcome.”

In 2020, he used his own cash to build out the technology behind Fair, which is designed to be an option to those who are new to the country, have no credit or need access to interest-free loans. Fair operates with Coastal Community Bank as its sponsor bank. Parekh’s goal with Fair is to provide “ethical, transparent banking” – to anyone – via a membership model that eliminates all banking fees. Members can pay a one-time membership fee of $99 (paid in full or in installments) to have access to all of Fair’s online banking and financial services.

“Another challenge that I saw is that there were hardly any options for insurance and retirement services for immigrants and low-income people,” Parekh said. “All big institutions catered to people with a lot of money. But we want to create an institution where we are fair to everybody, regardless of religion, race, color, net worth or how much is in their bank account. We want everyone to be treated the same.”

Over the past year, the nation has seen a surge of neobanks emerge aimed at specific demographics, including Greenwood, First Boulevard and Cheese. Welcome Technologies is also aimed at serving the immigrant population. 

Fair aims to differentiate itself, according to Parekh, by offering interest-free lending, as well as the ability to invest, get insurance and plan for retirement in one platform that is available in English, Arabic and Spanish (with more languages to come). Ultimately, his goal in Fair is to help address the “longstanding racial income inequalities and widening wealth disparities in the U.S.” He won’t get a salary for his role as CEO.

Among Fair’s features are free international transfer, early access to paycheck funds, “instant, interest-free” microloans — essentially buy now, pay later at the register — an annual dividend account, debit card accounts for kids and interest-free loans for home, auto and business that are equity-based. Those equity-based loans are Sharia compliant, meaning that it’s not kosher to take interest. They also comply with Jewish law.

Instead, if a member wants to buy a home, they can put 20% down, and Fair will provide 80% via an LLC, of which the member and bank will be co-owners.

“The members will have the option of buying out our shares on whatever schedule they wish,” Parekh said.

In partnership with Avibra, Fair is offering free supplemental life, accident medical and AD&D insurance to all members as part of its banking services.

Fair aims to practice socially responsible investing (SRI), an approach to investing that reduces exposure to companies that are deemed to have a negative social impact. The fintech also practices ESG investing, which measures the sustainability of an investment and its overall impact in three specific categories: environmental, social and corporate governance. And, it’s also working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and World Relief, and will donate 2.5% of profits to refugee missions globally, as well as racial economic empowerment initiatives.

Among Fair’s advisors are Manolo Sánchez, a director at Fannie Mae and Stewart Information Systems and former chair & CEO of BBVA Compass, and Samuel Golden, managing director at management consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal and founder of A&M’s Financial Industry practice.

Crypto asset manager Babel raises $40M from Tiger Global, Bertelsmann and others

Three years after its inception, crypto financial service provider Babel Finance is racking up fundings and partnerships from major institutional investors. The startup said Monday that it has closed a $40 million Series A round, with lead investors including Zoo Capital, Sequoia Capital China, Dragonfly Capital, Bertelsmann and its Asian fund BAI Capital, and Tiger Global Management.

For years, traditional investors were reluctant to join the cryptocurrency fray. But in 2020, Babel noticed that many institutions and high net worth individuals began to consider crypto assets as an investment class.

Babel, with offices in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Singapore, wanted to capture the window of opportunity and be one of the earliest to help allocate crypto assets in investors’ portfolios. But first, it needed to win investors’ trust. One solution is to have reputable private equity and venture capital firms on its cap table.

“It’s more of a brand boost so we can attract more institutions and build up credibility,” Yulong Liu, Babel’s head of global partnerships, said of the financing which is a strategic round as Babel had “reached profitability” and “wasn’t actively looking for funding.”

To vie for institutional customers and wealthy individuals, Babel plans to spend its fresh proceeds on product development, compliance and talent acquisition, seeking especially banking professionals and lawyers to work on regulatory requirements. It currently has a headcount of 55 employees.

Mainstream investors are jumping into the crypto scene partly because many see bitcoin as a way to hedge against “solvency and credibility risks” amid global economic uncertainties caused by Covid-19, said Liu. “Bitcoin is not something controlled by the government.”

The other trigger, Liu explained, was what shock the industry in February: Elon Musk bought $1.5 billion in bitcoin and declared Tesla would begin accepting the digital token as payments. That sparked a massive rally around bitcoin, sending its price to over $40,000.

Babel’s evolution has been in line with the trajectory of the industry. In its early days, the startup was a “crypto-native” company offering deposit and loan products to crypto miners and traders. These days, it also runs a suite of asset management products and services tailored to enterprise clients around the world. It’s applying for relevant financial licenses in North America and Asia.

As of February, Babel’s crypto lending business had reached an outstanding balance of $2 billion in equivalent cryptocurrency, the firm says. It has served more than 500 institutional clients and sees about $8 billion in direct trading volume each month. 80% of its revenues are currently derived from institutions. The goal is to manage one million bitcoins within four years.

Telkomsel invests an additional $300 million in Gojek

Telkomsel, a unit of Indonesia’s largest telecom operator Telkom, has invested an additional $300 million in ride-hailing and payments firm Gojek, the two firms said Monday, just months after the network provider wrote a $150 million check to the Southeast Asian firm.

The announcement comes amid Gojek working to seal a proposed merger with e-commerce platform Tokopedia. The $18 billion deal would result in a new entity called GoTo, according to media reports. Telkomsel’s investment today likely makes it one of GoTo’s top eight investors.

Gojek — which has raised over $3.45 billion to date from high-profile investors including Google, Facebook, PayPal, Visa, and Tencent — and Telkomsel said their strategic partnership will “open up new synergies as the two companies scale up digital services and deliver new, innovative solutions.”

The two firms have maintained a deal since 2018 to subsidize the cost of mobile data consumed by the ride-hailing firm’s driver partners.

With more than 170 million subscribers, Telkomsel is the largest telecom operator in Indonesia. In addition to ride-hailing, Gojek has expanded to several additional businesses, including digital payments and food delivery in Indonesia.

Today’s news follows a $150 million investment Telkomsel made in Gojek in November last year. The two firms have since integrated several aspects of their services to accelerate digitization of micro, small and medium enterprises and bringing greater cost savings for driver partners.

Some of these include integration of Telkomsel MyAds with GoBiz, which enables Gojek’s MSME partners to use MyAds to efficiently expand their outreach to Telkomsel users, and easy onboarding for Gojek MSME partners to become Telkomsel reseller partners through the DigiPOS Aja! Application.

The two firms also co-market gaming services through Telkomsel’s Dunia Games and GoPay in collaboration with Tencent, providing greater value for PUBGM users, they said.

“Telkomsel is optimistic that this latest investment will open more opportunities for society to access advanced digital technology-based innovations developed by homegrown companies,” said Telkomsel chief executive Setyanto Hantoro in a statement.

StuDocu raises $50M as its note-sharing network for college students passes 15M users

Whether learning online or taking a class in person, every student knows all too well how important it is to have good notes from your classes as a key way to remember and apply what you’ve been taught. Now, an Amsterdam-based startup called StuDocu, which has built a big and profitable business by way of a platform to help source and share the best student-created class notes, is announcing $50 million in funding on the heels of huge growth — a sign of demand and opportunity in the space.

The Series B is coming from Partech, the French VC, and it comes as StuDocu is gaining some critical mass: the startup says it now reaches 15 million users across 2,000 universities in 60 countries. What’s notable about that scale is not just the size but the fact that it had been achieved while the company was previously largely bootstrapped: Both PitchBook and Crunchbase note only about $1.5 million raised before now, but in fact CEO Marnix Broer tells me that it had quietly raised just under $10 million before now with previous investors including Piton Capital, Peak Capital and Point Nine Capital.

A lot of the focus in edtech in the last year of Covid-19 living has been on technology that helps people learn remotely as well (or maybe even better) than they might have done in more traditional, physical environments: improved streaming experiences, better approaches for teaching via a screen, tools for managing the experience, and so on. StuDocu both fits that mold, but also, in a way, is a throwback to the more basic approach we associate with learning: sitting in a class and taking notes during the lessons.

That was the environment in which four students came together and first formed StuDocu.

In the Netherlands, where StuDocu is based, a large amount of one’s evaluation in an undergraduate class is based on how you do in the final exams, and so the notes have perhaps even more disproportionate value.

CEO Marnix Broer, along with his friends Jacques Huppes, Lucas van den Houten and Sander Kuijk, saw an opportunity while still students back in 2013 to leverage the power of the internet and crowdsourcing, to make it easier for people who were studying the same course at university to connect together online and help each other by uploading notes from their courses and exchanging them with each other — the power of many being one way of better covering your bases in the knowledge department.

(Huppes has stepped away from the company in an active role but remains an advisor, the other two are still there, Broer said.)

Initially the product was “completely free,” he said, and was organically a popular enough concept that it not only picked up users at their university in Delft, but also a number of other schools. Then, as the founders approached graduation, “we decided we needed to earn some money,” and with the concept still going strong, they turned their attention to making their tool into a business.

Through a couple of iterations, “We finally came up with trying to keep as much free as we can in a freemium model,” Broer said. In StuDocu’s case, using the data they had amassed about how much certain documents were viewed, downloaded and recommended over others, they created a top 20% of all documents, which were labelled premium, “so you either upload your own docs or pay a small subscription fee to access them.” Conversely, this also means that 80% of documents on the site are all still free.

StuDocu also built a few pieces of technology into its platform to help fight against scammers or people trying to game it: the only users who it now measures to determine what is premium content are premium users themselves, who do not get any indication of what is premium content on the site and what is not, and are more likely more serious and heavier users of StuDocu.

“We want the best quality documents to stay up and the rest to drift down the pile, so that our users only experience great notes,” he said. “But we know if a few upload garbage we haven’t lost money on it. We just gave access for free and should not have. At the end of the day, it’s a community and we believe that will ensure the quality stays high.” They also incentivise people to review documents with lottery tickets and other rewards.

And it has increasingly been adding in more ways of scanning materials to determine that what people are submitting are actual notes about the subject at hand, rather than blank documents or random unrelated writing. A recent search partnership with Algolia, Broer said, should also help with more granualar document searches, rather than simply searching by university and course to find materials.

It’s a compelling business model that helps square the issue that a lot of user-generated content sites have, which is that the vast majority are consumers rather than creators. Broer said that currently some 15% of its users pay for the service, 15% access it by uploading content, and 70% of its base are using it free and not uploading anything.

Through its gradual building up of a business from a tool that they built to help themselves, StuDocu went, Broer said, from “working in a squat“, to taking a small and cheap space with interns, to what Broer describes “a normal office.”

There are a number of other edtech companies that have identified the potential of providing platforms for students to help each other with learning. Brainly, another big one out of Europe (specifically Poland) built its concept not around notes but students helping each other answer homework questions, similar to Chegg. NexusNotes out of Australia also has built a platform aimed at amassing notes; Academia includes not just notes but also research papers; Docsity also focuses on both class notes and papers. StudySmarter also out of Europe also brings in notes but also applies AI to shape a person’s learning progress.

Perhaps the most similar and StuDocu’s biggest competitor of all is Course Hero out of the U.S., which is now valued at around $1.1 billion (a notable number here too, since StuDocu is not disclosing valuation).

“We consider ourselves the leading global player,” Broer noted, with more than 30 local languages supported across its catalog of courses and notes.

“We help millions of students and have millions of documents, but at the same time we consider ourselves a hyper-local marketplace,” he added. “Three hundred people who are on the same law course can now communicate and share knowledge with each other.”

This funding will be an interesting test of both extending that hyper-local concept to more places, but also tapping into opportunities where the help that might come could have a much bigger impact.

In the UK, for example, going down another age bracket younger than university to students of high school age (14 and up), the majority of them are studying to prepare for two sets of tests, GCSEs that you take in year 11 (aged 16/17 usually) and A-Levels you take in year 13 (18/19 years old), both based around very specific subjects and thus based on very particular curriculums that literally the whole country studies together. That is to say, even if individual schools or teachers might have different approaches or teach better or worse, at the end of the day, all the students will be taking the same examinations in their specified subjects.

This presents an interesting opportunity to a company like StuDocu, which could build a much bigger network of users as a result on an even smaller proportion of contributed, strong notes (since more of the users will all be needing the same materials). This is also a model used in other places, and Broer said StuDocu is well on its way to testing and slowly expanding in specifically these kinds of markets at the moment.

And you could argue that even if standardized tests were not a part of the equation, students will want better notes to use for other kinds of coursework, such as essay writing, or simply to help retain knowledge as they continue to learn. With some 200 million people currently in university education, there are a lot of opportunities to find variations on the premise.

There might also be possibilities down the line to work more closely also with universities to build out the course materials — also a big area considering that a lot of professors already provide notes for their lectures to students — although Broer said that for now its focus is remaining on students and their needs, since in many cases professors still do not do this.

It’s for all of these reasons that investors are there for StuDocu’s funding.

“StuDocu is a platform already helping millions of students around the world, and we’re excited to partner with this talented team in their mission to make education more accessible to all.” comments Bruno Crémel, a general partner at Partech, in a statement. “When we met the team at StuDocu, we were wildly impressed with their data-driven culture and by how much students really love using their services. We look forward to working closely with Marnix and his team as they accelerate StuDocu’s global expansion and develop even more innovative ways to support students in meeting their learning goals.”

Lightmatter’s photonic AI ambitions light up an $80M B round

AI is fundamental to many products and services today, but its hunger for data and computing cycles is bottomless. Lightmatter plans to leapfrog Moore’s law with its ultra-fast photonic chips specialized for AI work, and with a new $80M round the company is poised to take its light-powered computing to market.

We first covered Lightmatter in 2018, when the founders were fresh out of MIT and had raised $11M to prove that their idea of photonic computing was as valuable as they claimed. They spent the next three years and change building and refining the tech — and running into all the hurdles that hardware startups and technical founders tend to find.

For a full breakdown of what the company’s tech does, read that feature — the essentials haven’t changed.

In a nutshell, Lightmatter’s chips perform certain complex calculations fundamental to machine learning in a flash — literally. Instead of using charge, logic gates, and transistors to record and manipulate data, the chips use photonic circuits that perform the calculations by manipulating the path of light. It’s been possible for years, but until recently getting it to work at scale, and for a practical, indeed a highly valuable purpose has not.

Prototype to product

It wasn’t entirely clear in 2018 when Lightmatter was getting off the ground whether this tech would be something they could sell to replace more traditional compute clusters like the thousands of custom units companies like Google and Amazon use to train their AIs.

“We knew in principle the tech should be great, but there were a lot of details we needed to figure out,” CEO and co-founder Nick Harris told TechCrunch in an interview. “Lots of hard theoretical computer science and chip design challenges we needed to overcome… and COVID was a beast.”

With suppliers out of commission and many in the industry pausing partnerships, delaying projects, and other things, the pandemic put Lightmatter months behind schedule, but they came out the other side stronger. Harris said that the challenges of building a chip company from the ground up were substantial, if not unexpected.

A rack of Lightmatter servers.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

“In general what we’re doing is pretty crazy,” he admitted. “We’re building computers from nothing. We design the chip, the chip package, the card the chip package sits on, the system the cards go in, and the software that runs on it…. we’ve had to build a company that straddles all this expertise.”

That company has grown from its handful of founders to more than 70 employees in Mountain View and Boston, and the growth will continue as it brings its new product to market.

Where a few years ago Lightmatter’s product was more of a well-informed twinkle in the eye, now it has taken a more solid form in the Envise, which they call a ‘general purpose photonic AI accelerator.” It’s a server unit designed to fit into normal datacenter racks but equipped with multiple photonic computing units, which can perform neural network inference processes at mind-boggling speeds. (It’s limited to certain types of calculations, namely linear algebra for now, and not complex logic, but this type of math happens to be a major component of machine learning processes.)

Harris was reticent to provide exact numbers on performance improvements, but more because those improvements are increasing than that they’re not impressive enough. The website suggests it’s 5x faster than an NVIDIA A100 unit on a large transformer model like BERT, while using about 15 percent of the energy. That makes the platform doubly attractive to deep-pocketed AI giants like Google and Amazon, which constantly require both more computing power and who pay through the nose for the energy required to use it. Either better performance or lower energy cost would be great — both together is irresistible.

It’s Lightmatter’s initial plan to test these units with its most likely customers by the end of 2021, refining it and bringing it up to production levels so it can be sold widely. But Harris emphasized this was essentially the Model T of their new approach.

“If we’re right, we just invented the next transistor,” he said, and for the purposes of large-scale computing, the claim is not without merit. You’re not going to have a miniature photonic computer in your hand any time soon, but in datacenters, where as much as 10 percent of the world’s power is predicted to go by 2030, “they really have unlimited appetite.”

The color of math

A Lightmatter chip with its logo on the side.

Image Credits: Lightmatter

There are two main ways by which Lightmatter plans to improve the capabilities of its photonic computers. The first, and most insane sounding, is processing in different colors.

It’s not so wild when you think about how these computers actually work. Transistors, which have been at the heart of computing for decades, use electricity to perform logic operations, opening and closing gates and so on. At a macro scale you can have different frequencies of electricity that can be manipulated like waveforms, but at this smaller scale it doesn’t work like that. You just have one form of currency, electrons, and gates are either open or closed.

In Lightmatter’s devices, however, light passes through waveguides that perform the calculations as it goes, simplifying (in some ways) and speeding up the process. And light, as we all learned in science class, comes in a variety of wavelengths — all of which can be used independently and simultaneously on the same hardware.

The same optical magic that lets a signal sent from a blue laser be processed at the speed of light works for a red or a green laser with minimal modification. And if the light waves don’t interfere with one another, they can travel through the same optical components at the same time without losing any coherence.

That means that if a Lightmatter chip can do, say, a million calculations a second using a red laser source, adding another color doubles that to two million, adding another makes three — with very little in the way of modification needed. The chief obstacle is getting lasers that are up to the task, Harris said. Being able to take roughly the same hardware and near-instantly double, triple, or 20x the performance makes for a nice roadmap.

It also leads to the second challenge the company is working on clearing away, namely interconnect. Any supercomputer is composed of many small individual computers, thousands and thousands of them, working in perfect synchrony. In order for them to do so, they need to communicate constantly to make sure each core knows what other cores are doing, and otherwise coordinate the immensely complex computing problems supercomputing is designed to take on. (Intel talks about this “concurrency” problem building an exa-scale supercomputer here.)

“One of the things we’ve learned along the way is, how do you get these chips to talk to each other when they get to the point where they’re so fast that they’re just sitting there waiting most of the time?” said Harris. The Lightmatter chips are doing work so quickly that they can’t rely on traditional computing cores to coordinate between them.

A photonic problem, it seems, requires a photonic solution: a wafer-scale interconnect board that uses waveguides instead of fiber optics to transfer data between the different cores. Fiber connections aren’t exactly slow, of course, but they aren’t infinitely fast, and the fibers themselves are actually fairly bulky at the scales chips are designed, limiting the number of channels you can have between cores.

“We built the optics, the waveguides, into the chip itself; we can fit 40 waveguides into the space of a single optical fiber,” said Harris. “That means you have way more lanes operating in parallel — it gets you to absurdly high interconnect speeds.” (Chip and server fiends can find that specs here.)

The optical interconnect board is called Passage, and will be part of a future generation of its Envise products — but as with the color calculation, it’s for a future generation. 5-10x performance at a fraction of the power will have to satisfy their potential customers for the present.

Putting that $80M to work

Those customers, initially the “hyper-scale” data handlers that already own datacenters and supercomputers that they’re maxing out, will be getting the first test chips later this year. That’s where the B round is primarily going, Harris said: “We’re funding our early access program.”

That means both building hardware to ship (very expensive per unit before economies of scale kick in, not to mention the present difficulties with suppliers) and building the go-to-market team. Servicing, support, and the immense amount of software that goes along with something like this — there’s a lot of hiring going on.

The round itself was led by Viking Global Investors, with participation from HP Enterprise, Lockheed Martin, SIP Global Partners, and previous investors GV, Matrix Partners and Spark Capital. It brings their total raised to about $113 million; There was the initial $11M A round, then GV hopping on with a $22M A-1, then this $80M.

Although there are other companies pursuing photonic computing and its potential applications in neural networks especially, Harris didn’t seem to feel that they were nipping at Lightmatter’s heels. Few if any seem close to shipping a product, and at any rate this is a market that is in the middle of its hockey stick moment. He pointed to an OpenAI study indicating that the demand for AI-related computing is increasing far faster than existing technology can provide it, except with ever larger datacenters.

The next decade will bring economic and political pressure to rein in that power consumption, just as we’ve seen with the cryptocurrency world, and Lightmatter is poised and ready to provide an efficient, powerful alternative to the usual GPU-based fare.

As Harris suggested hopefully earlier, what his company has made is potentially transformative in the industry and if so there’s no hurry — if there’s a gold rush, they’ve already staked their claim.

Figure raises $7.5M to help startup employees better understand their compensation

The topic of compensation has historically been a delicate one that has left many people — especially startup employees — wondering just what drives what can feel like random decisions around pay and equity.

Last June, software engineers (and housemates) Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand set about trying to solve the problem for companies by developing a data-driven platform that aims to help companies structure their compensation plans and transparently communicate them to candidates.

Now today, the startup behind that platform, Figure, announced it has raised $7.5 million in seed funding led by CRV. Bling Capital, Better Tomorrow Ventures and Garage Capital also participated in the financing, along with angel investors such as AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant, Jason Calacanis, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and other executives based in Silicon Valley.

The startup has amassed a client list that includes other startups such as fintechs Brex and NerdWallet and AI-powered fitness company Tempo. 

Put simply, Hobby and Tisserand’s mission is to improve workflows and transparency around pay, particularly equity. The pair had both worked at startups themselves (Uber and Instacart, respectively) and ended up leaving money on the table when they left those companies because no one had properly explained to them what their equity, which changed at every valuation, meant.  

Image Credits: Figure co-founders and co-CEOs Miles Hobby and Geoffrey Tisserand. Image Credits: Figure

So, one of their goals was to create a solution that would provide a user-friendly explanation of what a person’s equity stake really means, from tax implications to whether or not they have to buy the stock and/or hold onto it.

“I’ve gone through the job search process many times before and there’s all these complex legal documents to understand why you’re getting 10,000 stock options, but obviously we knew the vast majority of people have no idea how that works,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We saw an opportunity there to help companies actually convey the value to their candidates while also making them aware of the potential risks of owning something that’s so illiquid.”

Image Credits: Figure

Another goal of Figure’s is to help create a more fair and balanced process about decisions around pay and equity so that there’s less inequality out there. Pointedly, it aims to remove some of the biases that exist around those decisions by systematizing the process.

“We saw a void in this kind of context around equity…and knew that there had to be a better way for companies to structure, manage and explain their compensation plans,” Hobby said.

To Hobby and Tisserand, Figure is designed to help stop instances of implicit bias.

“Compensation should be based on the work that you’re doing, and not gender or ethnic background,” Tisserand told TechCrunch. “We’re trying to give that context and remove biases. So, we’re trying to help at two different stages –– to surface inequities that already exist and make sure there are no anomalies, and then to help stop them before they can exist.”

Figure also aims to give companies the tools to educate candidates and employees on their total compensation — including equity, salary, benefits and bonuses — in a “straightforward and user-friendly” way. For example, it can create custom offer letters that interactively detail a candidate’s compensation.

“Our goal is for Figure to become an operating system for compensation, where a company can encode their compensation philosophy into our system, and we help them determine their job architecture, compensation bands and offer numbers while monitoring their compensation health to provide adjustment suggestions when needed,” Hobby said.

Post-hire, Figure’s compensation management system “helps keep everything running smoothly.”

Anna Khan, general partner of enterprise software at CRV, is joining Figure’s board as part of the funding. The decision to back the startup was in part personal, she said.

“I’d been investing in software for eight years and was alarmed that no one was building anything around pay equity when it comes to how we’re paid, why we’re paid what we’re paid and on how to build equity long term,” Khan told TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, discussions around compensation and equity still happen behind closed doors and this extends into workflow around compensation — equally broken — with manual leveling, old data and large pay inequities.”

The company plans to use its new capital to expand its product offerings and scale its organization.

Oculii looks to supercharge radar for autonomy with $55M round B

Autonomous vehicles rely on many sensors to perceive the world around them, and while cameras and lidar get a lot of the attention, good old radar is an important piece of the puzzle — though it has some fundamental limitations. Oculii, which just raised a $55M round, aims to minimize those limitations and make radar more capable with a smart software layer for existing devices — and sell its own as well.

Radar’s advantages lie in its superior range, and in the fact that its radio frequency beams can pass through things like raindrops, snow, and fog — making it crucial for perceiving the environment during inclement weather. Lidar and ordinary visible light cameras can be totally flummoxed by these common events, so it’s necessary to have a backup.

But radar’s major disadvantage is that, due to the wavelengths and how the antennas work, it can’t image things in detail the way lidar can. You tend to get very precisely located blobs rather than detailed shapes. It still provides invaluable capabilities in a suite of sensors, but if anyone could add a bit of extra fidelity to its scans, it would be that much better.

That’s exactly what Oculii does — take an ordinary radar and supercharge it. The company claims a 100x improvement to spatial resolution accomplished by handing over control of the system to its software. Co-founder and CEO Steven Hong explained in an email that a standard radar might have, for a 120 degree field of view, a 10 degree spatial resolution, so it can tell where something is with a precision of a few degrees on either side, and little or no ability to tell the object’s elevation.

Some are better, some worse, but for the purposes of this example that amounts to an effectively 12×1 resolution. Not great!

Handing over control to the Oculii system, however, which intelligently adjusts the transmissions based on what it’s already perceiving, could raise that to a 0.5° horizonal x 1° vertical resolution, giving it an effective resolution of perhaps 120×10. (Again, these numbers are purely for explanatory purposes and aren’t inherent to the system.)

That’s a huge improvement and results in the ability to see that something is, for example, two objects near each other and not one large one, or that an object is smaller than another near it, or — with additional computation — that it is moving one way or the other at such and such a speed relative to the radar unit.

Here’s a video demonstration of one of their own devices, showing considerably more detail than one would expect:

Exactly how this is done is part of Oculii’s proprietary magic, and Hong did not elaborate much on how exactly the system works. “Oculii’s sensor uses AI to adaptively generate an ‘intelligent’ waveform that adapts to the environment and embed information across time that can be leveraged to improve the resolution significantly,” he said. (Integrating information over time is what gives it the “4D” moniker, by the way.)

Here’s a little sizzle reel that gives a very general idea:

Autonomous vehicle manufacturers have not yet hit on any canonical set of sensors that AVs should have, but something like Oculii could give radar a more prominent place — its limitations sometimes mean it is relegated to emergency braking detection at the front or some such situation. With more detail and more data, radar could play a larger role in AV decisionmaking systems.

The company is definitely making deals — it’s working with Tier-1s and OEMs, one of which (Hella) is an investor, which gives a sense of confidence in Oculii’s approach. It’s also working with radar makers and has some commercial contracts looking at a 2024-2025 timeline.

CG render of Oculii's two radar units.

Image Credits: Oculii

It’s also getting into making its own all-in-one radar units, doing the hardware-software synergy thing. It claims these are the world’s highest resolution radars, and I don’t see any competitors out there contradicting this — the simple fact is radars don’t compete much on “resolution,” but more on the precision of their rangefinding and speed detection.

One exception might be Echodyne, which uses a metamaterial radar surface to direct a customizable radar beam anywhere in its field of view, examining objects in detail or scanning the whole area quickly. But even then its “resolution” isn’t so easy to estimate.

At any rate the company’s new Eagle and Falcon radars might be tempting to manufacturers working on putting together cutting-edge sensing suites for their autonomous experiments or production driver-assist systems.

It’s clear that with radar tipped as a major component of autonomous vehicles, robots, aircraft and other devices, it’s worth investing seriously in the space. The $55M B round certainly demonstrates that well enough. It was, as Oculii’s press release lists it, “co-led by Catapult Ventures and Conductive Ventures, with participation from Taiwania Capital, Susquehanna Investment Group (SIG), HELLA Ventures, PHI-Zoyi Capital, R7 Partners, VectoIQ, ACVC Partners, Mesh Ventures, Schox Ventures, and Signature Bank.”

The money will allow for the expected scaling and hiring, and as Hong added, “continued investment of the technology to deliver higher resolution, longer range, more compact and cheaper sensors that will accelerate an autonomous future.”