Apple alum’s jobs app for India’s workers raises $12.5 million

A startup by an Apple alum that has become home to millions of low-skilled workers in India said on Tuesday it has raised an additional $12.5 million, just five months after securing $8 million from high-profile investors.

One-year-old Apna said Sequoia Capital India and Greenoaks Capital led the $12.5 million Series B investment in the startup. Existing investors Lightspeed India and Rocketship VC also participated in the round. The startup, whose name is Hindi for “ours,” has now raised more than $20 million.

More than 6 million low-skilled workers such as drivers, delivery personnel, electricians and beauticians have joined Apna to find jobs and upskill themselves. But there’s more to this.

An analysis of the platform showed how workers are helping one another solve problems — such as a beautician advising another beautician to perform hair dressing in a particular way that tends to make customers happier and tip more, and someone sharing how they negotiated a hike in their salary from their employer.

“The sole idea of this is to create a network for these workers,” Nirmit Parikh, Apna founder and chief executive told TechCrunch in an interview. “Network gap has been a very crucial challenge. Solving it enables people to unlock more and more opportunities,” he said. Harshjit Sethi, principal at Sequoia India, said Apna was making inroads with “building a professional social network for India.”

The startup has become an attraction for several big firms, including Amazon, Flipkart, Unacademy, Byju’s, Swiggy, BigBasket, Dunzo, BlueStar and Grofers, which have joined as recruiters to hire workers. Apna offers a straightforward onboarding process — thanks to support for multiple local languages — and allows users to create a virtual business card, which is then shown to the potential recruiters. Parikh said Apna’s AI understands the cultural nuances, helping recruiters find the best candidates for their needs.

The past six months have been all about growth at Apna, said Parikh. The app, available on Android, had 1.2 million users in August last year, for instance. During this period, there have been 60 million interactions between recruiters and potential applicants, he said. The platform, which has amassed more than 80,000 employers, has a retention rate of over 95%, said Parikh.

“Apna has taken a jobs-centric approach to upskilling that we are very excited about. Lack of accountability has been the core issue with current skill / vocational learning alternatives for grey and blue-collar workers. Apna has turned the problem on its head by creating net-positive job outcomes for anyone who chooses to upskill on the platform,” said Vaibhav Agrawal, partner at Lightspeed India, in a statement.

Image Credits: Nirmit Parikh

Parikh got the idea of building Apna after he kept hearing about the difficulty his family and friends faced in India in hiring people. This was puzzling to Parikh, as he wondered how could there be a shortage of workers in India when there are hundreds of millions of people actively looking for such jobs. The problem, Parikh realized, was that there wasn’t a scalable networking infrastructure in place to connect workers with employers.

Before creating the startup, Parikh met workers and went undercover as an electrician and floor manager to understand the problems workers were facing. That journey has not ended. The startup talks to over 15,000 users each day to understand what else Apna could do for them.

“One of the things we heard was that users were facing difficulties with interviews. So we started groups to practice them with interviews. We also started upskilling users, which has made us an edtech player. We plan to ramp up this effort in the coming months,” said Parikh, who also started an AI firm more than a decade ago to solve challenges with electricity flux and then another startup to solve for information overload. (The first startup is now being run by family and friends, and the second firm was sold to Intel, Parikh said.)

Parikh said the startup is overwhelmed each day with the response it is getting from its customers and the industry. Each day, he said, people share how they were able to land jobs, or increase their earnings. In recent months, several high-profile executives from companies such as Uber and BCG have joined Apna to scale the startup’s vision, he said, adding that the problem Apna is solving in India exists everywhere and the startup’s hope is to eventually serve people across the globe.

The app currently has no ads, and Parikh said he intends to not change that. “Once you get in the ad business, you start doing things you probably shouldn’t be doing,” he said. The startup instead plans to monetize its platform by charging recruiters, and offering upskill courses. But Parikh maintained that Apna will always offer its courses to users for free. The premium version will target those who need extensive assistance, he said. The startup also plans to expand its team.

As is the case elsewhere, millions of people lost their livelihood in India in the past year as coronavirus shut many businesses and workers migrated to their homes. There are over 250 million blue and grey-collar workers in India, and providing them meaningful employment opportunities is one of the biggest challenges in our country, said Sethi.

BrioHR raises $1.3M ahead of Y Combinator’s demo day

As the next Y Combinator demo day approaches, more startups from the current Winter 2021 batch are showing up in our inboxes. One of the most interesting from the mix is BrioHR, which is building human resources (HR) software for Southeast Asia.

The company fits into a theme I’ve noticed amongst startups, namely a focus on taking proven software genre approaches to specific parts of the world, localizing them and building in-region winners. This theme is not new, of course, but it does feel slightly more pronounced amongst recent accelerator batches than before (TechCrunch covers Techstars, Y Combinator, 500 Startups and other accelerators as part of our startup focus). Perhaps this is the impact of so many accelerators going virtual, widening the founder pool from whom they might matriculate to include a more global group of founders.

Back to BrioHR itself, the company is announcing $1.3 million in fundraising, inclusive of its YC check. The investment was led by Global Founders Capital, and saw participation from East Ventures and angel investors.

TechCrunch caught up with Benjamin Croc, the company’s co-founder and CEO, who is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the city pictured in the image at the top of this post). The time zones were tricky to navigate, but the company’s vision was simple enough: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) HR software suite, tailored to fit the laws of the Southeast Asian region.

Croc and his co-founder, Nabil Oudghiri, founded the company in 2018, incorporating in the second half of the year after talking over their idea for a few months. BrioHR did not launch its product until the fourth quarter of 2019, opening for what Croc described as early adopters. The startup launched more broadly in the first quarter of 2020, right in time for COVID-19 to shake up the world.

Its fundraising came in two chunks, one in the middle of 2020 and one that came in the third quarter of the year; the first chunk of the raise was larger than the second. BrioHR raised the capital using a convertible note, with terms that Croc described as near to standard.

In our conversation, TechCrunch was curious about how prevalent SaaS as a model is in Malaysia and the other countries the startups wants to sell into. The co-founder said that while SaaS is not as well known in his part of the world as it is in the United States — not a huge surprise given that the U.S. is the largest SaaS market in the world — he praised the speed at which Southeast Asian countries adopt business trends; if Croc is right, his view could point to a very active subscription software market in the region in coming years.

BrioHR competes with local companies that are more focused on providing single solutions, like payroll management. From our discussion, it appears that Croc hopes that by going broad, in a feature sense, BrioHR will surpass legacy competitors. The startup is itself still building out its regional tooling, providing payroll support in only a handful of countries. It intends to expand that service to new countries this year, and be everywhere with its payroll product in two to three years, its co-founder said.

Notably, even though it has already raised capital, BrioHR intends to take part in Y Combinator’s demo day. Croc said it is taking part for optionality. TechCrunch read that as the company isn’t actively looking to raise more capital at the moment, but wouldn’t turn down another convertible note at a comfortable cap. Then again, what company at any demo day would?

Since launching out of its early-adopter program, Croc said that the company has grown 10x. That’s not hard from a small base, so the company’s 2021 growth will be more illustrative of its true near-term potential. Let’s see what new metrics it breaks out in a few weeks’ time.

BrioHR raises $1.3M ahead of Y Combinator’s demo day

As the next Y Combinator demo day approaches, more startups from the current Winter 2021 batch are showing up in our inboxes. One of the most interesting from the mix is BrioHR, which is building human resources (HR) software for Southeast Asia.

The company fits into a theme I’ve noticed amongst startups, namely a focus on taking proven software genre approaches to specific parts of the world, localizing them and building in-region winners. This theme is not new, of course, but it does feel slightly more pronounced amongst recent accelerator batches than before (TechCrunch covers Techstars, Y Combinator, 500 Startups and other accelerators as part of our startup focus). Perhaps this is the impact of so many accelerators going virtual, widening the founder pool from whom they might matriculate to include a more global group of founders.

Back to BrioHR itself, the company is announcing $1.3 million in fundraising, inclusive of its YC check. The investment was led by Global Founders Capital, and saw participation from East Ventures and angel investors.

TechCrunch caught up with Benjamin Croc, the company’s co-founder and CEO, who is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (the city pictured in the image at the top of this post). The time zones were tricky to navigate, but the company’s vision was simple enough: A software-as-a-service (SaaS) HR software suite, tailored to fit the laws of the Southeast Asian region.

Croc and his co-founder, Nabil Oudghiri, founded the company in 2018, incorporating in the second half of the year after talking over their idea for a few months. BrioHR did not launch its product until the fourth quarter of 2019, opening for what Croc described as early adopters. The startup launched more broadly in the first quarter of 2020, right in time for COVID-19 to shake up the world.

Its fundraising came in two chunks, one in the middle of 2020 and one that came in the third quarter of the year; the first chunk of the raise was larger than the second. BrioHR raised the capital using a convertible note, with terms that Croc described as near to standard.

In our conversation, TechCrunch was curious about how prevalent SaaS as a model is in Malaysia and the other countries the startups wants to sell into. The co-founder said that while SaaS is not as well known in his part of the world as it is in the United States — not a huge surprise given that the U.S. is the largest SaaS market in the world — he praised the speed at which Southeast Asian countries adopt business trends; if Croc is right, his view could point to a very active subscription software market in the region in coming years.

BrioHR competes with local companies that are more focused on providing single solutions, like payroll management. From our discussion, it appears that Croc hopes that by going broad, in a feature sense, BrioHR will surpass legacy competitors. The startup is itself still building out its regional tooling, providing payroll support in only a handful of countries. It intends to expand that service to new countries this year, and be everywhere with its payroll product in two to three years, its co-founder said.

Notably, even though it has already raised capital, BrioHR intends to take part in Y Combinator’s demo day. Croc said it is taking part for optionality. TechCrunch read that as the company isn’t actively looking to raise more capital at the moment, but wouldn’t turn down another convertible note at a comfortable cap. Then again, what company at any demo day would?

Since launching out of its early-adopter program, Croc said that the company has grown 10x. That’s not hard from a small base, so the company’s 2021 growth will be more illustrative of its true near-term potential. Let’s see what new metrics it breaks out in a few weeks’ time.

Murmur, still in private beta, wants to help startups make private work agreements public

As building in public continues to gain popularity with early-stage startup founders, Murmur, coming out of stealth today, wants to leverage that natural transparency to a louder frequency.

Founded by Aaron Dignan, Murmur helps startups create work agreements based on the policies of other startups. “Work agreements” is an intentionally broad phrase, but encapsulates everything that a team decides about how work works, from paternal leave strategies to strategic priorities to how hiring works.

“It’s everything you’ve ever argued about [within your startup],” Dignan said.

It requires a healthy level of transparency within the ecosystem, meaning that a startup would have to be open with sharing its policies to the public in the first place. But, if Murmur works, it could help early-stage founders save time on the pain-staking process of figuring out how to build policies from scratch around hiring, OKR goals and vacation policies.

Instead, a new founder could just rely on other, seasoned founders, who have shared their policies for anyone to enjoy, and customize their own plan based around those practices.

Today, Murmur announced that it has raised $1.8 million to scale its working agreements platform in a round led by Lerer Hippeau, with participation from SemperVirens, Human Ventures and Remote First Capital. Other investors include Steve Schlafman, Mariano Suarez-Battan (the CEO of Mural), Brian Sugar (the CEO of PopSugar) and Adam Pisoni (the co-founder of Yammer).

The company, still in private beta, will be launching to the public in early summer 2021.

Murmur is a web-based platform that allows startups to author, customize and plan policies that will shape a team’s culture. The platform helps teams go from proposal to decision with features like voting, edits and feedback throughout the process of creating an agreement. Instead of pushing a copy and paste of another startup’s policy, Murmur prompts founders to use the outsourced policies as seeds, and add customization as they go.

“Anybody can Google and find some company’s years-old processes; the trick is in making an inclusive ‘agreement’ with real time all participating in the magic of keeping it and iterating it, and improving it,” Dignan said.

Image Credits: Murmur

Right now, it is free for anyone to see listed company public agreements. But it costs money to use the Murmur platform to create and customize your own agreements off of this information. With this format, you can see that Dignan thinks that the conversion power of the company lies more in its platform than the content.

Dignan tells me that the team is still testing pricing strategies, but the current plan is a free trial followed by a monthly per-seat fee of $12 to $15 per month, per user. One day, companies could charge a premium for a “kit” of tools on their platform.

Murmur’s initial target for customers are startups that are growing fast and already work in public, such as Buffer, Basecamp, Lattice and Blinkist, but in the future, big enterprises could also see it useful.

Murmur is launching amid a general trend of companies that are pitching themselves as best-practices-as-a-service. Companies in this space aren’t simply enabling other startups to use a fancy SaaS tool, they are not-so-gently pushing them to use those tools in the best possible way for the best possible outcome. Murmur, if it hits scale, could help the next generation of startups figure out the best way to start companies.

Dignan says that the startup “aims to do for working practices what GitHub did for code.”

Remote work is obviously a key catalyst for the company, since the transition has reminded teams that transparency, standards and communication is vital to a functioning organization.

While the startup currently only has Murmur working agreements on the platform, it plans to onboard the agreements of dozens of companies in the coming months. Even though the platform is what makes Murmur special, it’s clear that curating agreements from top companies plays a vital role in Murmur’s success.

It is not paying companies to publicly list their agreements, and the branding benefit of transparency is well worth the confidentiality cost of sharing due to recruitment benefits.

Dignan says connections from his book about the future of work will help land those agreements. Writing a book about a changing world of work before a global pandemic turned everything upside down is ironic, but Dignan, it appears, doesn’t view Murmur as a pandemic pivot.

“I’ve been thinking about this tool for seven years,” he said. But he didn’t think an opinionated tool would have a large enough total addressable market, and that anything that would scale would just reinforce the status quo. He didn’t build Murmur for a while because he thought that the ecosystem didn’t need “yet another customer engagement tool.”

So, he waited. And the pandemic, another peak of the Black Lives Matter movement and the election happened within one year.

“It was all signaling that the complexity is too much,” he said. “We need new ways of working, making decisions and organizing as people. And that felt like this huge moment where we plant the seed and in a few years’ time, the market will be huge.”

Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

First Boulevard raises $5M for its digital bank aimed at Black America

The murder of George Floyd last May ignited many things in the United States last year — one of which that was perhaps unexpected: a rise in the number of digital banks targeting the Black community.

Some members of the Black community took their belief that big banks are not meeting their needs and turned them into startup concepts.

One of those startups, First Boulevard (formerly called Theme), has just raised $5 million in seed funding from Barclays, Anthemis and a group of angel investors such as actress Gabrielle Union, Union Square Ventures John Buttrick and AutoZone CFO Jamere Jackson.

For co-founder and CEO Donald Hawkins, the genesis for the Overland, Kansas-bank came after Floyd’s murder, when he and friend Asya Bradley were talking about what they felt Black America “really needed to get out of a vicious cycle” of dealing with the same issues with no real solutions in sight.

CEO Donald Hawkins

COO Asya Bradley

“After viewing yet another tragedy engulf the Black community, and the all-too-familiar protests against persisting issues,” Hawkins said. “it was beyond clear to me that the solutions Black America needs must be financially-focused and developed within our community.”

The pair both had fintech experience. Hawkins had founded Griffin Technologies, a company focused on providing real-time, contextual intelligence to community banks and credit unions. And Bradley most recently was a founding team member and head of revenue at Synapse, a platform that built banking-as-a-service APIs to help bank the unbanked of America by connecting fintech platforms to banking institutions.

They discovered that there were only about 19 Black banks in the U.S., collectively holding about $5 billion in assets.

“And their technology was really behind the times,” Hawkins said. “We also took a hard look at some of the existing digital banks to really see who was really going about it  in the same way that we felt like America needed, and it was pretty clear at that point, that no one was really attacking the issue of helping Black America build some level of financial stability through the form of wealth-building play.”

The pair formed First Boulevard last August under the premise that Black Americans are “massively underserved consumers” of financial products and services despite having a collective spending power of $1.4 trillion annually. The startup’s mission is to empower Black Americans “ to take control of their finances, build wealth and reinvest in the Black economy” via a digitally-native platform.

Part of its goal with the new capital involves building out a Black business marketplace, which will give its members Cash Back for Buying Black™. It also plans to use the money to expand its team, increase its customer base and grow its platform to offer fee-free debit cards, financial education and on developing technology to help members automate their saving and wealth building goals.

History has proven that oppressed communities can succeed when their finances are centralized, and when it comes to financial services for the Black community, a centralizing force is long overdue,” Hawkins said.

The bank’s Cash Back for Buying Black™ program helps members earn up to 15% cashback when they spend money at black-owned businesses. 

“I believe the most recent stat but that also was that 41% of black owned businesses have closed since COVID-19 started,” Hawkins said. “We want to support them as much as we can.”

First Boulevard also is focused on passively building wealth for its communities.

“Black America as a whole has been blocked from learning how money works. We want to connect our members to wealth-building assets such as micro investments like money market accounts, high yield savings and cryptocurrency — things that Black America has largely been blocked from,” Hawkins said.

Bradley, who serves as First Boulevard’s COO, believes the current financial industry was not built to serve the needs of melanated people. Its goal is to take their understanding of the unique needs of the Black community to provide things such as early access to wages, round up savings features, targeted financial education and budgeting tools.

The pair aims to have a “fully inclusive” team that represents the community it’s trying to serve. Currently, its 20-person staff is 60% black, and 85% BIPOC. Two-thirds of its leadership team are women and 100% is BIPOC.

“We are very proud of that considering that in the fintech space, those are not normal numbers from a leadership perspective,” Bradley said.

For Katie Palencsar, an investor at the Female Innovators Lab by Barclays and Anthemis, said that her firm has always recognized “that access to financial services has long remained a challenge despite the digital evolution.”

“This is especially true for Black Americans who often reside in financial deserts and struggle to find platforms that truly look to serve them,” she said. “First Boulevard deeply understands the challenge.”

Palencsar believes that First Boulevard’s mission of helping Black Americans not just bank, but actually build wealth, is unique in the market.

First Boulevard sees the wealth gap that continues to grow within the U.S. and wants to build a digital banking platform that addresses the systemic and structural challenges that face this population while enabling Black Americans and allies to invest in the community,” she said.

The company also recently announced a partnership with Visa, under which First Boulevard will be first to pilot Visa’s new suite of crypto APIs. First Boulevard will also launch a First Boulevard Visa Debit card.

First Boulevard is one of several digital banks geared toward Black Americans that have emerged in recent months. Paybby, a digital bank for the black and brown communities, recently acquired Wicket, a neobank that uses AI and biometric technology to create a personalized experience for users. Hassan Miah, the CEO and founder of Paybby, said the bank’s goal is to be “the leading smart, digital bank for the Black and Brown communities.”

Paybby, which started by offering a bank account and a way to expedite PPP loans, will soon be adding a cryptocurrency savings account for the Black and Brown communities.   

“Black buying power is projected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2024,” Miah said. “Brown buying power is over $2 trillion. Paybby wants to take a good portion of this multi-trillion dollar market and give it back to these communities.”

Last October, Greenwood raised $3 million in seed funding from private investors to build what it describes as “the first digital banking platform for Black and Latinx people and business owners.”

At the time, co-founder Ryan Glover, founder of Bounce TV network, said it was “no secret that traditional banks have failed the Black and Latinx community.”

Newsela, the replacement for textbooks, raises $100M and becomes a unicorn

Newsela, a SaaS platform for K-12 instructional material backed by the likes of TCV, Kleiner Perkins, Reach Capital and Owl Ventures, announced today that it has raised $100 million in a Series D round. The financing was led by new investor Franklin Templeton, and brings Newsela’s valuation to $1 billion. The new round is larger than the aggregate of Newsela’s prior capital raised to date.

“Hitting $1 billion [in valuation] doesn’t change a thing,” Newsela CEO Matthew Gross told TechCrunch. But the startup is joining Quizlet, ApplyBoard and CourseHero as companies within the sector that have hit the unicorn mark as remote education continues to gain traction.

Newsela has created a platform that strings together a number of different third-party content, such as primary source documents or the latest National Geographic articles. Gross defines it as “material that isn’t purpose-built for education, [but] purpose-built for being interesting and informative.” If Newsela is doing its job right, the content can replace textbooks within a classroom altogether, while helping teachers give fresh, personalized material.

“Textbooks are dead in classrooms, but are well-and-live in district purchasing,” Gross said. The startup is on a mission to distribute its product better, and the money will be used to get it into more classrooms. Part of this, Gross explains, is telling teachers what else it can provide along with textbooks. Analytics has become a big part of Newsela’s business, as remote learning hurts student engagement.

The startup’s paid product is between $6 to $14 per student, which contrasts with textbooks that can cost a school $20 to $40 per student “even on an annualized basis.”

Like other edtech companies, Newsela offered its product for free in the beginning of the pandemic, which gave it a healthy bump of new users.

Newsela estimates that gross bookings have grown 115% over the pandemic, and that revenue grew 81%. It declined to share revenue numbers or if it has hit profitability. There will be more than 11 million students using Newsela licensing by the end of 2021, Gross said.

Newsela estimates that two-thirds of public schools in the United States are using their platform, likely aided by school district flexibility that has grown amid the pandemic.

Stoke Space wants to take reusable rockets to new heights with $9M seed

Many launch providers think reusability is the best way to lower the cost and delay involved in getting to space. SpaceX and Rocket Lab have shown reusable first stages, which take a payload to the edge of space — and now Stoke Space Technologies says it is making a reusable second stage, which will take that payload to orbit and beyond, and has raised a $9.1M seed round to realize it.

Designing a first stage that can return to Earth safely is no small task, but the fact that it only reaches a certain height and speed, and doesn’t actually climb into orbit at an even higher velocity, means that it is simpler to try. The second stage takes over when the first is spent, accelerating and guiding the payload to its destination orbit, which generally means it will have traveled a lot farther and will be going a lot faster when it tries to come back down.

Stoke thinks that it’s not just possible to create a second stage that’s reusable, but crucial to building the low-cost space economy that will enable decades of growth in the industry. The team previously worked on the New Glenn and New Shepard vehicles and engines at Blue Origin, the Merlin 1C for the Falcon 9 at SpaceX, and others.

“Our design philosophy is to design hardware that not only can be reused, but is operationally reusable. That means fast turnaround times with low refurbishment effort. Reusability of that type has to be designed in from the beginning,” said Andy Lapsa, co-founder and CEO of Stoke.

 

A rocket does a test fire in an industrial environment.

Image Credits: Stoke Space Technologies

Beyond the fact that the vehicle will employ a ballistic reentry and powered landing, Stoke did not comment on the engineering or method by which it would accomplish the Herculean feat of bring down a few tons of precision equipment safely from 400 kilometers up and traveling some 28,000 km/h. (Though Lapsa did mention to GeekWire that a “good, high-performing stable injector” is the core of their engine and therefore of the system around it.)

At speeds like that reentry can be deadly, so one hopes they save a little fuel not just for landing but for deceleration. That would increase the mass and complexity of the vehicle before payload, lowering its carrying capacity.

“It’s true that any reusable system will be inherently more complex than its expendable counterpart,” Lapsa said. “However, when one optimizes on mission cost and availability, that complexity is well worth it.”

As other launch companies have pointed out, you burn up a lot of money on reentry, but so far the safest move has been to keep the first stage alive. The second stage is by no means cheap, and any company would prefer to recycle it as well — and indeed it could lower the cost of launch enormously if they did so successfully.

The promise Stoke makes is not just to bring the upper stage home, but to bring it home and have it ready for reuse just a day later. “All launch hardware is reused time after time with aircraft-like regularity – zero refurbishment with 24-hour turnaround,” claims Lapsa.

Considering the amount of wear and tear a rocket goes through in ascent and landing, “zero refurbishment” may sound to many like an impossible dream. SpaceX’s reusable first stages can be turned around pretty quickly, but they can’t just fuel them up where they landed and press the button again.

Not only that, but Stoke aims to provide reusable-rocket service beyond low-Earth orbit, where the majority of small, lower-cost satellites go. Geosynchronous orbit and translunar or interplanetary trajectories are also planned.

“Missions to GTO, GEO direct, TLI, and earth escape will initially be done with partially reusable or expendable vehicles, depending on mission requirements, however those vehicles will be the same ones that may have been used on previous fully reusable missions to LEO. The design is extensible to full reuse for these missions (and/or extraplanetary landers) in future variants,” said Lapsa.

These are ambitious claims — even, given the state of rocketry right now, ones people may with good reason call unrealistic. But the industry has advanced more quickly than many would have predicted a decade ago and seemingly unrealistic ambition drove those changes as well.

The $9.1M seed round raised by Stoke will enable it to meet the next few milestones, but anyone who follows the industry will know that far more cash will be needed to cover the cost of development and testing in time.

The round was led by NFX and MaC Ventures, along with YC, Seven Seven Six (Alexis Ohanian), Liquid2 (Joe Montana), Trevor Blackwell, Kyle Vogt, and Charlie Songhurst, among others.

Docyt raises $1.5M for its ML-based accounting automation platform

Accounting isn’t a topic that most people can get excited about — probably not even most accountants. But if you’re running any kind of business, there’s just no way around it. Santa Clara-based Docyt wants to make the life of small and medium business owners (and their accounting firms) a bit easier by using machine learning to handle a lot of the routine tasks around collecting financial data, digitizing receipts, categorization and — maybe most importantly — reconciliation.

The company today announced that it has raised a $1.5 million seed-extension round led by First Rays Venture Partners with participation from Morado Ventures and a group of angel investors. Docyt (pronounced “docket”) had previously raised a $2.2 million seed round from Morado Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Westwave Capital, Xplorer Capital, Tuesday and angel investors. The company plans to use the new investment to accelerate its customer growth.

At first glance, it may seem like Docyt competes with the likes of QuickBooks, which is pretty much the de facto standard for small business accounting. But Docyt co-founder and CTO Sugam Pandey tells me that he thinks of the service as a partner to the likes of QuickBooks.

Image Credits: Docyt

“Docyt is a product for the small business owners who find accounting very complex, who are very experienced on how to run and grow their business, but not really an expert in accounting. At the same time, businesses who are graduating out of QuickBooks — small business owners sometimes become midsized enterprises as well — [ … ] they start growing out of their accounting systems like QuickBooks and looking for more sophisticated systems like NetSuite and Sage. And Docyt fits in in that space as well, extending the life of QuickBooks for such business owners so they don’t have to change their systems.”

In its earliest days, Docyt was a secure document sharing platform with a focus on mobile. Some of this is still in the company’s DNA, with its focus on being able to pull in financial documents and then reconciling that with a business’ bank transactions. While other systems may put the emphasis on transaction data, Docyt’s emphasis is on documents. That means you can forward an emailed receipt to the service, for example, and it can automatically attach this to a financial transaction from your credit card or bank statement (the service uses Plaid to pull in this data).

Image Credits: Docyt

For new transactions, you sometimes have to train the system by entering some of this information by hand, but over time, Docyt should be able to do most of this automatically and then sync your data with QuickBooks.

“Docyt is the first company to apply AI across the entire accounting stack,” said Amit Sridharan, founding general partner at First Rays Venture Partners. “Docyt software’s AI-powered data extraction, auto categorization and auto reconciliation is unparalleled. It’s an enterprise-level, powerful solution that’s affordable and accessible to small and medium businesses.”