Google updates Workspace

Google Workspace, the company’s productivity platform you’ll forever refer to as G Suite (or even “Google Docs”), is launching a large update today that touches everything from your calendar to Google Meet and how you can use Workspace with Google Assistant.

Image Credits: Google

Indeed, the highlight here is probably that you can now use Assistant in combination with Google Workspace, allowing you to check your work calendar or send a message to your colleagues. Until now, this feature was available in beta and even after it goes live, your company’s admins will have to turn on the “Search and Assistant” service. And this is a bit of a slow rollout, too, with this capability now being generally available on mobile but still in beta for smart speakers and displays like Google’s own Nest Hub. Still, it’s been a long time coming, given that Google promised these features a very long time ago now.

The other new feature that will directly influence your day-to-day work is support for recurring out-of-office entries and segmentable working hours, as well as a new event type, Focus Time, to help you minimize distractions. Focus Time is a bit cleverer than the three-hour blocks of time you may block off on your calendar anyway in that it limits notifications during those event windows. Google is also launching a new analytics feature that tells you how much time you spend (waste) in meetings. This isn’t quite as fully featured (and potentially creepy) as Microsoft’s Productivity Score, since it only displays how much time you spend in meetings, but it’s a nice overview of how you spend your days (though you know that already). None of this data is shared with your managers.

For when you go back to an office, Google is also adding location indicators to Workspace so you can share when you will be working from there and when you’ll be working from home.

And talking about meetings, since most of these remain online for the time being, Google is adding a few new features that now allow those of you who use their Google Nest Hub Max to host meetings at home and to set up a laptop as their own second-screen experience. What’s far more important, though, is that when you join a meeting on mobile, Google will now implement a picture-in-picture mode so you can be in that Meet meeting on your phone and still browse the web, Gmail and get important work done during that brainstorming session.

Mobile support for background replace is also coming, as well as the addition of Q&As and polls on mobile. Currently, you can only blur your background on mobile.

Image Credits: Google

For frontline workers, Google is adding something it calls Google Workspace Frontline, with new features for this group of users, and it is also making it easier for users to build custom AppSheet apps from Google Sheets and Drive, “so that frontline workers can digitize and streamline their work, whether it’s collecting data in the field, reporting safety risks, or managing customer requests.”

Twitter’s ‘Super Follow’ creator subscription takes shots at Substack and Patreon

It’s been an all-around more ambitious year for Twitter. Following activist shareholder action last year that aimed to oust CEO Jack Dorsey, the company has been making long overdue product moves, buying up companies and aiming to push the envelope on how it can tap its network and drive new revenue streams. Things seem to be paying off for the company, as their share price sits at an all-time high — double that of its 2020 high.

Today, the company shared early details on its first ever paid product, a feature called “Super Follow” which aims to combine the community trends of Discord, the newsletter insights of Substack, the audio chat rooms of Clubhouse and the creator support of Patreon into a creator subscription. The company announced the service during its Analyst Day event Thursday morning.

Plenty of details are still up in the air for the feature, which notably does not have a launch timeline.

Image Credits: Twitter

Screenshots shared by Twitter showcase a feature that allows Twitter users to subscribe to their favorite creators for a monthly price (one screenshot details a $4.99 per month cost) and earn certain subscriber-only perks, including things like “exclusive content,” “subscriber-only newsletters,” “community access,” “deals & discounts,” and a “supporter badge” for subscribers. Creators in the program will also be able to paywall certain media they share, including tweets, fleets and chats they organize in Twitter’s Clubhouse competitor Spaces.

The company’s other big announcement of the event was “Communities,” a product that seems designed to compete with Facebook Groups but also will likely provide “Super Follow” networks a place to interact with creators in close cahoots. They also shared early details on a “safety mode” that will allow users to auto-block and mute abusive accounts.

Introducing paywalls into the Twitter feed could dramatically shift the mechanics of the service. Twitter has been pretty conservative over the years in building features that are intended for singular classes of users. Creator-focused features built for a network that is already home to so many creators could be a major threat to services like Patreon, which have largely popped up due to the lackluster monetization tools available from the big social platforms.

New revenue streams will undoubtedly be key to Twitter’s ambitious plan to double its revenues by 2023.

 

SolarWinds hackers targeted NASA, Federal Aviation Administration networks

Hackers are said to have broken into the networks of U.S. space agency NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration as part of a wider espionage campaign targeting U.S. government agencies and private companies.

The two agencies were named by the Washington Post on Tuesday, hours ahead of a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing tasked with investigating the widespread cyberattack, which the previous Trump administration said was “likely Russian in origin.”

Spokespeople for the agencies did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but did not deny the breach in remarks to the Post.

It’s believed NASA and the FAA are the two remaining unnamed agencies of the nine government agencies confirmed to have been breached by the attack. The other seven include the Departments of Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and State, the Treasury, and the National Institutes of Health, though it’s not believed the attackers breached their classified networks.

FireEye, Microsoft, and Malwarebytes were among a number of cybersecurity companies also breached as part of the attacks.

The Biden administration is reportedly preparing sanctions against Russia, in large part because of the hacking campaign, the Post also reported.

The attacks were discovered last year after FireEye raised the alarm about the hacking campaign after its own network was breached. Each victim was a customer of the U.S. software firm SolarWinds, whose network management tools are used across the federal government and Fortune 500 companies. The hackers broke into SolarWinds’ network, planted a backdoor in its software, and pushed the backdoor to customer networks with a tainted software update.

It wasn’t the only way in. The hackers are also said to have targeted other companies by breaking into other devices and appliances on their victims’ networks, as well as targeting Microsoft vendors to breach other customers’ networks.

Last week, Anne Neuberger, the former NSA cybersecurity director who last month was elevated to the White House’s National Security Council to serve as the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, said that the attack took “months to plan and execute,” and will “take us some time to uncover this layer by layer.”

Kleeen raises $3.8M to make front-end design for business applications easy

Building a front-end for business applications is often a matter of reinventing the wheel, but because every business’ needs are slightly different, it’s also hard to automate. Kleeen is the latest startup to attempt this, with a focus on building the user interface and experience for today’s data-centric applications. The service, which was founded by a team that previously ran a UI/UX studio in the Bay Area, uses a wizard-like interface to build the routine elements of the app and frees a company’s designers and developers to focus on the more custom elements of an application.

The company today announced that it has raised a $3.8 million seed round led by First Ray Venture Partners. Leslie Ventures, Silicon Valley Data Capital, WestWave Capital, Neotribe Ventures, AI Fund and a group of angel investors also participated in the round. Neotribe also led Kleeen’s $1.6 million pre-seed round, bringing the company’s total funding to $5.3 million.

Image Credits: Kleeen

After the startup he worked at sold, Kleeen co-founder, CPO and President Joshua Hailpern told me, he started his own B2B design studio, which focused on front-end design and engineering.

“What we ended up seeing was the same pattern that would happen over and over again,” he said. “We would go into a client, and they would be like: ‘we have the greatest idea ever. We want to do this, this, this and this.’ And they would tell us all these really cool things and we were: ‘hey, we want to be part of that.’ But then what we would end up doing was not that. Because when building products — there’s the showcase of the product and there’s all these parts that support that product that are necessary but you’re not going to win a deal because someone loved that config screen.”

The idea behind Kleeen is that you can essentially tell the system what you are trying to do and what the users need to be able to accomplish — because at the end of the day, there are some variations in what companies need from these basic building blocks, but not a ton. Kleeen can then generate this user interface and workflow for you — and generate the sample data to make this mock-up come to life.

Once that work is done, likely after a few iterations, Kleeen can generate React code, which development teams can then take and work with directly.

Image Credits: Kleeen

As Kleeen co-founder and CEO Matt Fox noted, the platform explicitly doesn’t want to be everything to everybody.

“In the no-code space, to say that you can build any app probably means that you’re not building any app very well if you’re just going to cover every use case. If someone wants to build a Bumble-style phone app where they swipe right and swipe left and find their next mate, we’re not the application platform for you. We’re focused on really data-intensive workflows.” He noted that Kleeen is at its best when developers use it to build applications that help a company analyze and monitor information and, crucially, take action on that information within the app. It’s this last part that also clearly sets it apart from a standard business intelligence platform.

ChargeLab raises seed capital to be the software provider powering EV charging infrastructure

As money floods into the electric vehicle market a number of small companies are trying to stake their claim as the go-to provider of charging infrastructure. These companies are developing proprietary ecosystems that work for their own equipment but don’t interoperate.

ChargeLab, which has raised $4.3 million in seed financing led by Construct Capital and Root Ventures, is looking to be the software provider providing the chargers built by everyone else.

“You’ll find everyone in every niche and corner,” says ChargeLab chief executive Zachary Lefevre. Lefevre likens Tesla to Apple with its closed ecosystem and compares Chargepoint and Blink, two other electric vehicle charging companies to Blackberry — the once dominant smartphone maker. “What we’re trying to do is be android,” Lefevre said.

That means being the software provider for manufacturers like ABB, Schneider Electric and Siemens. “These guys are hardware makers up and down the value stack,” Lefevre said.

ChargeLab already has an agreement with ABB to be their default software provider as they go to market. The big industrial manufacturer is getting ready to launch their next charging product in North America.

As companies like REEF and Metropolis revamp garages and parking lots to service the next generation of vehicles, ChargeLab’s chief executive thinks that his software can power their EV charging services as they begin to roll that functionality out across the lots they own.

Lefevre got to know the electric vehicle charging market first as a reseller of everyone else’s equipment, he said. The company had raised a pre-seed round of $1.1 million from investors including Urban.us and Notation Capital and has now added to that bank account with another capital infusion from Construct Capital, the new fund led by Dayna Grayson and Rachel Holt, and Root Ventures, Lefevre said.

Eventually the company wants to integrate with the back end of companies like Chargepoint and Electrify America to make the charging process as efficient for everyone, according to ChargeLab’s chief executive.

As more service providers get into the market, Lefevre sees the opportunity set for his business expanding exponentially. “Super open platforms are not going to be building an EV charging system any more than they would be building their own hardware,” he said.

Jamaica’s Amber Group fixes second JamCOVID security lapse

Amber Group has fixed a second security lapse that exposed private keys and passwords for the government’s JamCOVID app and website.

A security researcher told TechCrunch on Sunday that the Amber Group left a file on the JamCOVID website by mistake, which contained passwords that would have granted access to the backend systems, storage, and databases running the JamCOVID site and app. The researcher asked not to be named for fears of legal repercussions from the Jamaican government.

This file, known as an environment variables (.env) file, is often used to store private keys and passwords for third-party services that are necessary for cloud applications to run. But these files are sometimes inadvertently exposed or uploaded by mistake, but can be abused to gain access to data or services that the cloud application relies on if found by a malicious actor.

The exposed environmental variables file was found in an open directory on the JamCOVID website. Although the JamCOVID domain appears to be on the Ministry of Health’s website, Amber Group controls and maintains the JamCOVID dashboard, app, and website.

The exposed file contained secret credentials for the Amazon Web Services databases and storage servers for JamCOVID. The file also contained a username and password to the SMS gateway used by JamCOVID to send text messages, and credentials for its email-sending server. (TechCrunch did not test or use any of the passwords or keys as doing so would be unlawful.)

A portion of the exposed credentials found on the JamCOVID website, controlled and maintained by Amber Group. (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch contacted Amber Group’s chief executive Dushyant Savadia to alert the company to the security lapse, who pulled the exposed file offline a short time later. We also asked Savadia, who did not comment, to revoke and replace the keys.

Matthew Samuda, a minister in Jamaica’s Ministry of National Security, did not respond to a request for comment or our questions — including if the Jamaican government plans to continue its contract or relationship with Amber Group, and what — if any — security requirements were agreed upon by both the Amber Group and the Jamaican government for the JamCOVID app and website?

Details of the exposure comes just days after Escala 24×7, a cybersecurity firm based in the Caribbean, claimed that it had found no vulnerabilities in the JamCOVID service following the initial security lapse.

Escala’s chief executive Alejandro Planas declined to say if his company was aware of the second security lapse prior to its comments last week, saying only that his company was under a non-disclosure agreement and “is not able to provide any additional information.”

This latest security incident comes less than a week after Amber Group secured a passwordless cloud server hosting immigration records and negative COVID-19 test results for hundreds of thousands of travelers who visited the island over the past year. Travelers visiting the island are required to upload their COVID-19 test results in order to obtain a travel authorization before their flights. Many of the victims whose information was exposed on the server are Americans.

One news report recently quoted Amber’s Savadia as saying that the company developed JamCOVID19 “within three days.”

Neither the Amber Group nor the Jamaican government have commented to TechCrunch, but Samada told local radio that it has launched a criminal investigation into the security lapse.


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Ex-General Catalyst and General Atlantic VC announces $68M debut fund

As of 2019, the majority of venture firms — 65% — still did not have a single female partner or GP at their firm, according to All Raise.

So naturally, anytime we hear of a new female-led fund, our ears perk up.

Today, New York-based Avid Ventures announced the launch of its $68 million debut venture capital fund. Addie Lerner — who was previously an investor with General Catalyst, General Atlantic and Goldman Sachs — founded Avid in 2020 with the goal of taking a hands-on approach to working with founders of early-stage startups in the United States, Europe and Israel.

“We believe investing in a founder’s company is a privilege to be earned,” she said.

Tali Vogelstein — a former investor at Bessemer Venture Partners — joined the firm as a founding investor soon after its launch and the pair were able to raise the capital in 10 months’ time during the 2020 pandemic.

The newly formed firm has an impressive list of LPs backing its debut effort. Schusterman Family Investments and the George Kaiser Family Foundation are its anchor LPs. Institutional investors include Foundry Group, General Catalyst, 14W, Slow Ventures and LocalGlobe/Latitude through its Basecamp initiative that backs emerging managers. 

Avid also has the support of 50 founders, entrepreneurs and investors as LPs — 40% of whom are female — including Mirror founder Brynn Putnam; Getty Images co-founder Jonathan Klein; founding partner of Acrew Capital Theresia Gouw and others.

Avid invests at the Series A and B stages, and so far has invested in Alloy, Nova Credit, Rapyd, Staircase, Nava and The Wing. Three of those companies have female founders — something Lerner said happened “quite naturally.”

“Diversity can happen and should happen more organically as opposed to quotas or mandates,” she added.

In making those deals, Avid partnered with top-tier firms such as Kleiner Perkins, Canapi Ventures, Zigg Capital and Thrive Capital. In general, Avid intentionally does not lead its first investments in startups, with its first checks typically being in the $500,000 to $1 million range. It preserves most of its capital for follow-on investments.

“We like to position ourselves to earn the right to write a bigger check in a future round,” Lerner told TechCrunch. 

In the case of Rapyd, Avid organized an SPV (special-purpose vehicle) to invest in the unicorn’s recent Series D. Lerner had previously backed the company’s Series B round while at General Catalyst and remains a board observer.

Prior to founding Avid, Lerner had helped deploy more than $450 million across 18 investments in software, fintech (Rapyd & Monzo) and consumer internet companies spanning North America, Europe and Israel. 

When it comes to sectors, Avid is particularly focused on backing early-stage fintech, consumer internet and software companies. The firm intends to invest in about 20 startups over a three-to-four year period.

“We want to take our time, so we can be as hands-on as we want to be,” Lerner said. “We’re not looking to back 80 companies. Our goal is to drive outstanding returns for our LPs.”

The firm views itself as an extension of its portfolio companies’ teams, serving as their “Outsourced Strategic CFO.” Lerner and Vogelstein also aim to provide the companies they work with strategic growth modeling, unit economics analysis, talent recruiting, customer introductions and business development support.

“We strive to build deep relationships early on and to prove our value well ahead of a prospective investment,” Lerner said. Avid takes its team’s prior data-driven experience to employ “a metrics-driven approach” so that a startup can “deeply understand” their unit economics. It also “gets in the trenches” alongside founders to help grow a company.

Ed Zimmerman, chair of Lowenstein Sandler LLP’s tech group in New York and adjunct professor of VC at Columbia Business School, is an Avid investor.

He told TechCrunch that because of his role in the venture community, he is often counsel to a company or fund and will run into former students in deals. Feedback from numerous people in his network point to Lerner being “extraordinarily thoughtful about deals,” with one entrepreneur describing her as “one of the smartest people she has met in a decade-plus in venture.”

“I’ve seen it myself in deals and then I’ve seen founders turn down very well branded funds to work with Addie,” Zimmerman added, noting they are impressed both by her intellect and integrity. “…Addie will find and win and be invited into great deals because she makes an indelible impression on the people who’ve worked with her and the data is remarkably consistent.”

Microsoft announces the next perpetual release of Office

If you use Office, Microsoft would really, really, really like you to buy a cloud-enabled subscription to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365). But as the company promised, it will continue to make a stand-alone, perpetual license for Office available for the foreseeable future. A while back, it launched Office 2019, which includes the standard suite of Office tools, but is frozen in time and without the benefit of the regular feature updates and cloud-based tools that come with the subscription offering.

Today, Microsoft is announcing what is now called the Microsoft Office LTSC (Long Term Servicing Channel). It’ll be available as a commercial preview in April and will be available on both Mac and Windows, in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions.

And like with the previous version, it’s clear that Microsoft would really prefer if you just moved to the cloud already. But it also knows that not everybody can do that, so it now calls this version with its perpetual license that you pay for once and then use for as long as you want to (or have compatible hardware) a “specialty product for specific scenarios. Those scenarios, Microsoft agrees, include situations where you have a regulated device that can’t accept feature updates for years at a time, process control devices on a manufacturing floor and other devices that simply can’t be connected to the internet.

“We expect that most customers who use Office LTSC won’t do it across their entire organization, but only in specific scenarios,” Microsoft’s CVP for Microsoft 365, Jared Spataro, writes in today’s announcement.

Because it’s a specialty product, Microsoft will also raise the price for Office Professional Plus, Office Standard, and the individual Office apps by up to 10%.

“To fuel the work of the future, we need the power of the cloud,” writes Spataro. “The cloud is where we invest, where we innovate, where we discover the solutions that help our customers empower everyone in their organization – even as we all adjust to a new world of work. But we also acknowledge that some of our customers need to enable a limited set of locked-in-time scenarios, and these updates reflect our commitment to helping them meet this need.”

If you have one of these special use cases, the price increase will not likely deter you and you’ll likely be happy to hear that Microsoft is committing to another release in this long-term channel in the future, too.

As for the new features in this release, Spataro notes that will have dark mode support, new capabilities like Dynamic Arrays and XLOOKUP in Excel, and performance improvements across the board. One other change worth calling out is that it will not ship with Skype for Business but the Microsoft Teams app (though you can still download Skype for Business if you need it).

TikTok parent ByteDance joins patent troll protection group LOT Network

LOT Network, the non-profit that helps businesses of all sizes and across industries defend themselves against patent trolls by creating a shared pool of patents to immunize themselves against them, today announced that TikTik parent ByteDance is joining its group.

ByteDance has acquired its fair share of patents in recent years and is itself embroiled in a patent fight with its rival Triller. That’s not what joining the LOT Network is about, though. ByteDance is joining a group of companies here that includes the likes of IBM, the Coca-Cola Company, Cisco, Lyft, Microsoft, Oracle, Target, Tencent, Tesla, VW, Ford, Waymo, Xiaomi and Zelle. In total, the group now has over 1,300 members.

As LOT CEO Ken Seddon told me, the six-year-old group had a record year in 2020, with 574 companies joining it and bringing its set of immunized patents to over 3 million, including 14% of all patents issued in the U.S.

Among the core features of LOT, which only charges members who make more than $25 million in annual revenue, is that its members aren’t losing control over the patents they add to the pool. They can still buy and trade them as before, but if they decide to sell to what the industry calls a ‘patent assertion entity,’ (PAE) that is, a patent troll, they automatically provide a free licence to that patent to every other member of the group. This essentially turns LOT into what Seddon calls a ‘flu shot ‘ against patent trolls (and one that’s free for startups).

“The conclusion that people are waking up to is, is that we’re basically like a herd, we’re herd immunization, effectively,” Seddon said. “And every time a company joins, people realize that the community of non-members shrinks by one. It’s like those that don’t have the vaccination shrinks — and they are, ‘wait a minute, that makes me a higher risk of getting sued. I’m a bigger target.’ And they’re like, ‘wait a minute, I don’t want to be the target.'”

ByteDance, he argues, is a good example for a company that can profit from membership in LOT. While you may think of patents as purely a sign of a company’s innovativeness, for corporate lawyers, they are also highly effective defense tools (that can be used aggressively as well, if needed). But it can take a small company years to build up a patent portfolio. But a fast-growing, successful company also becomes an obvious target for patent trolls.

“When you are a successful company, you naturally become a target,” Seddon said. “People become jealous and they become threatened by you. And they covet your money and your revenue and your success. One of the ways that companies can defend themselves and protect their innovation is through patents. Some companies grow so fast, they become so successful, that their revenue grows faster than they can grow their patent portfolio organically.” He cited Instacart, which acquired 250 patents from IBM earlier this month, and Airbnb, which was sued by IBM over patent infringement in early 2020 (the companies settled in December), as examples.

ByteDance, thanks to the success of TikTok, now finds itself in a situation where it, too, is likely to become a target of patent trolls. The company has started acquiring patents itself to grow its portfolio faster and now it is joining LOT to strengthen its protection there.

“[ByteDance] is being a visionary and trying to get ahead of the wave,” Seddon noted. “They are a successful global company that needs to develop a global IP strategy. Historically, PAEs were just a US problem, but now ByteDance has to worry about PAEs being an issue in China and Europe as well.  By joining LOT, they protect themselves and their investments from over 3 million patents should they ever fall into the hands of a PAE.”

Lynn Wu, Director and Chief IP Counsel, Global IP and Digital Licensing Strategy at ByteDance, agrees. “Innovation is core to the culture at ByteDance, and we believe it’s important to protect our diverse technical and creative community,” she said in today’s announcement. “As champions for the fair use of IP, we encourage other companies to help us make the industry safer by joining LOT Network. If we work together, we can protect the industry from exploitation and continue advancing innovation, which is key to the growth and success of the entire community.”

There’s another reason companies are so eager to join the group now, though, and that’s because these patent assertion entities, which had faded into the background a bit in the mid- to late-2010s, may be making a comeback. The core assumption here is a bit gloomy: many companies seem to assume we’re in for an economic downturn. If we hit a recession, a lot of patent holders will start looking at their patent portfolios and start selling off some their more valuable patents in order to stay afloat. Since beggars can’t be choosers, that often means they’ll sell to a patent troll if that troll is the highest bidder. Last year, a patent troll sued Uber using a patent sold by IBM, for example (and IBM gets a bit of a bad rap for this, but, hey, it’s business).

That’s what happened after the last recession — though it typically takes a few years for the effect to be felt. Nothing in the patent world moves quickly.

Now, when LOT members sell to a troll, that troll can’t sue other LOT members over it. Take IBM, for example, which joined LOT last year.

“People give IBM a lot of grief and criticism for selling to PAEs, but at least IBM is giving everybody a chance to get a free license,” Seddon told me. “IBM joined LOT last year and what IBM is effectively doing is saying to everybody, ‘look, I joined LOT.’ And they put all of their entire patent portfolio into LOT. And they’re saying to everybody, ‘look, I have the right to sell my patents to anybody I want, and I’m going to sell it to the highest bidder. And if I sell it to a patent troll and you don’t join LOT — and if you get sued by a troll, is that my fault or your fault? Because if you join LOT, you could have gotten a free license.'”

Emerging as an Eastern powerhouse, Earlybird Digital East Fund launches new $242M fund

Earlybird Digital East Fund — a fund associated with Germany’s Earlybird VC, but operating separately — has launched a €200m ($242m) successor fund. The fund’s focus will remain the same as before: a Seed and Series-A fund focusing on what’s known as ‘Emerging Europe’, in other words, countries stretching from the Baltics to Central and Eastern Europe, and Turkey. The firm has also promoted Mehmet Atici, who’s been with the firm for eight years, to Partner. The new fund has made four investments so far: FintechOS, Payhawk, Picus, and Binalyze.

The back-story to DEF is a fascinating tale of what happened to Europe in the last 15 years, as tech took off and Europeans returned from Silicon Valley.

Following his exit from SelectMinds (where he was the Founder & CEO) in 2005, Cem Sertoglu moved back to Turkey. Although he says he “accidentally became the first angel investor” there, he was clearly the right man, in the right place, at the right time. He told me: “I was very lucky and ended up writing the first checks in some of the first large outcomes in Turkey.”

In 2013, Sertoglu partnered with Evren Ucok (the first angel in Peak Games and Trendyol), and Roland Manger (Earlybird). Dan Lupu, a Romanian investor who had covered the region for Intel Capital, joined them, and together they raised the ‘Earlybird Digital East Fund I’ set at $150m fund in 2014, focusing on CEE and Turkey. This was and is an area where there can be high-quality ventures to be found, but very little in the way of VC. 

Thereafter, between 2014 and 2019, the fund invested in UiPath, Hazelcast, and Obilet. UiPath has become a global leader in the area known as ‘Robotic Process Automation (RPA). Hazelcast is a low latency data processing platform startup with Turkish roots. Obilet is a marketplace focused for the massive Turkish intercity bus travel market. DEF has also exited Vivense, Dolap, and EMbonds and in more recent times the fund has exited Vivense, the “Wayfair of Turkey” to Actera, the top local PE fund.

The team had spectacular early success. Peak Games, Trendyol, YemekSepeti and GittiGidiyor are the four largest Turkish tech exits to date. Digital East Fund was an investor in all of them. Peak games exited for $1.8 billion in cash to Zynga only last year.

As of Q4 2020, the fund’s metrics are:
Investment Multiple: 24.9x
Gross IRR: 104.4%
Net IRR: 84.1%

So in VC terms, they have done pretty well.

I interviewed Sertoglu to unpack the story of Earlybird Digital East Fund.

He told me DEF has achieved a 17 times investment multiple on a $150 million fund. He thinks “this might be the biggest European VC fund performance in history, and it’s not coming from Berlin, it’s not coming from London, but it’s coming from Eastern Europe. We have been told by some of our LPs that they think we’re the top 2014 vintage VC fund in the world, nobody’s seen stronger numbers than this.”

“Peak Games turned out to be a phenomenal story. When you look at how tough it’s been for Turkey, macroeconomically. The fact that a single company with 100 people essentially sold for $1.8 billion in cash, was just… it was staggering for the local market here.”

DEF’s emergence from Turkey, together with its relationship with a fund in Berlin, was not the most obvious path for the VC fund.

“One thing we realized early one was that we could invest with our own capital and syndicating to our friends, but for follow-on funding, we’d always have to go global. And that made us feel vulnerable. It made us feel we were always dependent on others’ comprehension of the opportunity that we were facing. So that’s when the first fund idea came out this was,” said Sertoglu.

“We felt that there was this unusual dislocation between opportunity and capital in Eastern Europe. Our first fund was $150 million funds – I mean, a very quaint size compared to Western markets. But we became the largest fund in the region, and decided to focus on this series A gap where we felt that there was this big opportunity, because of the way we think series A is still very much a local play.”

“Being a local player that understands the region would be an advantage, so this was proven to be true. We could essentially see pretty much everything in Eastern Europe for the last eight years. And we caught the biggest one, fortunately, which was UiPath. I think very few funds around the world can say that they see the majority if not all of the opportunities that fall into their mandate,” he said.

“We have this dual strategy of backing local champions as well as contenders for global markets as well. 20 years ago you had to be in Silicon Valley. Now, Transferwise comes out of Estonia, UiPath comes out of Romania. And that was even before the pandemic.”

Sertoglu concluded: “So we now have fresh capital, coming on the heels of a very successful first fund, which we’re keen to deploy. We’re calling all the opportunities, seeing very ambitious, strong teams coming out of the region. And we have 200 million euros to focus on these types of opportunities in the region.”