State AGs tell Facebook to scrap Instagram for kids plans

In a new letter, attorneys general representing 44 U.S. states and territories are pressuring Facebook to walk away from new plans to open Instagram to children. The company is working on an age-gated version of Instagram for kids under the age of 13 that would lure in young users who are currently not permitted to use the app, which was designed for adults.

“It appears that Facebook is not responding to a need, but instead creating one, as this platform appeals primarily to children who otherwise do not or would not have an Instagram account,” the coalition of attorneys general wrote, warning that an Instagram for kids would be “harmful for myriad reasons.”

The state attorneys general call for Facebook to abandon its plans, citing concerns around developmental health, privacy and Facebook’s track record of prioritizing growth over the well being of children on its platforms. In the letter, embedded below, they delve into specific worries about cyberbullying, online grooming by sexual predators and algorithms that showed dieting ads to users with eating disorders.

Concerns about social media and mental health in kids and teens is a criticism we’ve been hearing more about this year, as some Republicans join Democrats in coalescing around those issues, moving away from the claims of anti-conservative bias that defined politics in tech during the Trump years.

Leaders from both parties have been openly voicing fears over how social platforms are shaping young minds in recent months amidst calls to regulate Facebook and other social media companies. In April, a group of Congressional Democrats wrote Facebook with similar warnings over its new plans for children, pressing the company for details on how it plans to protect the privacy of young users.

In light of all the bad press and attention from lawmakers, it’s possible that the company may walk back its brazen plans to boost business by bringing more underage users into the fold. Facebook is already in the hot seat with state and federal regulators in just about every way imaginable. Deep worries over the company’s future failures to protect yet another vulnerable set of users could be enough to keep these plans on the company’s back burner.

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.

Less than 24 hours to save $100 to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021

Calling all frazzled procrastinators, feet-draggers, lollygaggers and last-minute decision makers. The best price on passes to TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, which takes place on June 9, disappears in mere hours.

It’s now o’clock, baby. Shift your EV into gear, hail a robotaxi or tell Mr. Scott to beam you up — whatever it takes to buy your pass before the early bird deadline expires tonight, May 6, at 11:59 pm (PT).

TC Sessions: Mobility 2021 gathers the very best people in the mobility startup ecosystem to discuss the rapidly evolving trends, opportunities and challenges that come from inventing new ways to move populations — and all their stuff — around the planet and beyond.

This one-day deep dive will help you drive your startup forward, understand emerging trends and gain insight on what investors want and where they’re placing bets. Engage in hyper-focused networking and discover opportunities anywhere in the world.

We have a great line up, and here are just a few examples of the interviews, inter-active panel discussions and breakout sessions waiting for you. Don’t forget to check out the event agenda here.

Mobility’s Robotic Future: Automotive manufacturers are looking to robotics as the future of mobility, from manufacturing to autonomy and beyond. We’ll be speaking with James Kuffner, CEO, Toyota Research Institute – Advanced Development, the head of robotics initiatives at one of the world’s largest automakers, to find out how the technology is set to transform the industry.

The Rise of Robotaxis in China: Silicon Valley has long been viewed as a hub for autonomous vehicle development. But another country is also leading the charge. Executives from three leading Chinese robotaxi companies (that also have operations in Europe or the U.S.) will join us to provide insight into the unique challenges of developing and deploying the technology in China and how it compares to other countries.

Will Venture Capital Drive the Future of Mobility? Clara Brenner (Urban Innovation Fund), Quin Garcia (Autotech Ventures) and Rachel Holt (Construct Capital) will discuss how the pandemic changed their investment strategies, the hottest sectors within the mobility industry, the rise of SPACs as a financial instrument and where they plan to put their capital in 2021 and beyond.

What are you waiting for? It’s now o’clock and time to save $100 — but only if you purchase your pass to Mobility 2021 before the price increase goes into effect tonight, May 6 at 11:59 pm (PT). Let the learning, networking and scaling begin!

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at TC Sessions: Mobility 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

Diginex launches ESG reporting platform aimed at small businesses

As ESG reporting goes up the agenda for large companies, it’s also increasingly doing so for smaller companies as well. But right now, tracking things like your company’s CO2 emissions is mainly the preserve of large corporations. Now a startup hopes to address this.

Diginex Solutions has a self-guided tool which claims to generate ESG reports six times faster than competitors and comes in at a relatively affordable $99 per month.

The blockchain-enabled reporting tool also generates reports, giving companies the ability to demonstrate their ESG creds.

DiginexESG is certified by the GRI, an international independent standards organization and now operates in the US, UK, Luxembourg, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Chile. It is currently raising venture backing largely from strategic corporate investors.

Competitors include Turnkey Group, NASDAQ Onereport, Enablon (raised $15M) and World-favour.

Mark Blick, CEO at Diginex Solutions said, “The current landscape of ESG reporting is challenging for many organizations – particularly SMEs – requiring huge consultancy fees, time and resources that distracts from day-to-day activity. The DiginexESG platform quite simply takes away those challenges and does all the heavy lifting for them. It’s like Docusign, Dropbox, TurboTax or Slack hardcoded for ESG reporting.”

Facebook launches Neighborhoods, a Nextdoor clone

Facebook is launching a new section of its app designed to connect neighbors and curate neighborhood-level news. The new feature, predictably called Neighborhoods, is available now in Canada and will be rolling out soon for U.S. users to test.

As we reported previously, Neighborhoods has technically been around since at least October of last year, but that limited test only recruited residents of Calgary, Canada.

On Neighborhoods, Facebook users can create a separate sub-profile and can populate it with interests and a custom bio. You can join your own lower-case neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods and complain about porch pirates, kids these days, or whatever you’d otherwise be doing on Nextdoor.

Aware of the intense moderation headaches on Nextdoor, Facebook says that it will have a set of moderators dedicated to Neighborhoods to will review comments and posts to keep matters “relevant and kind.” Within Neighborhoods neighborhoods, deputized users can steer and strike up conversations and do some light moderation, it sounds like. The new corner of Facebook will also come with blocking features.

As far as privacy goes, well, it’s Facebook. Neighborhoods isn’t its own standalone app and will naturally be sharing your neighborly behavior to serve you targeted ads elsewhere.

How 4 New Jersey pools turned into a startup that just raised $10M

As the oldest of 12 children, Bunim Laskin spent much of his teen years looking for ways to help keep his siblings entertained. Noticing that a neighbor’s pool was often empty, Laskin reached out to ask if his family could use her pool. To make it worth her while, he suggested that they could help cover her expenses for maintaining the pool.

Soon after, five other families had made the same arrangement with her and the pool owner had six families covering 25% of her expenses. This meant that the neighbor was actually making money off her pool. The arrangement sparked a business idea in Laskin’s mind. At the age of 20, he founded Swimply, a marketplace for homeowners to rent out their underutilized pools to local swimmers, with Asher Weinberger.

The Cedarhurst, New York-based company launched a beta in 2018, starting with four pools in the New Jersey area. 

“We used Google Earth to find houses, and then knocked on 80 doors with a pool,” Laskin recalls. “We got to 100 pools organically. Word of mouth really helped us grow.” The site was pretty bare bones, he admits, with potential customers only able to view photos of the pools and connect with the pool owner by phone.

That year, Swimply did around 400 reservations and raised $1.2 million from friends and family.

In 2019, Swimply launched what he describes as a “proper” website and app with an automated platform. It grew “4 to 5 times” that year, again mostly organically. In an episode that aired in March 2020, the company appeared on Shark Tank but went home without a deal.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Swimply, Laskin said, pivoted right into the pandemic.

“We were the perfect solution for people when the world was falling on its head,” he said. The company restructured its offering to ensure that pool owners did not have to interact with guests. “It was the perfect, contact-free, self-serve experience to hang out and be with people you quarantined with.”

The CDC then came out to say that it was safe to swim because chlorine could help kill the virus, and that proved to be a big boon to its business.

“On one end, it was a way for people to have a normal day and on the other, it helped give owners a way to earn an income, at a time when many people were being affected financially,” Laskin told TechCrunch.

Business took off in 2020 with revenue growing 4,000% and now Swimply is announcing a $10 million Series A round. Norwest Venture Partners led the financing, which also included participation from Trust Ventures and a number of angel investors such as Poshmark founder and CEO Manish Chandra; Rob Chesnut, former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb; Ancestry.com CEO Deborah Liu and Michael Curtis. 

Swimply is now operating in a total of 125 U.S. markets, two markets in Canada and five markets in Australia. It plans to use its new capital in part to expand into new markets and toward product development.

Image Credits: Swimply

The way it works is pretty straightforward. Swimply simply connects homeowners that have underutilized backyard spaces and pools with those seeking a way to gather, cool off or exercise, for example. People or families can rent pools by the hour, ranging in price from $15 to $60 per hour (at an average of $45/hour) depending on the amenities. New markets that Swimply has recently expanded to include Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, NC and the California cities of Oakland, San Luis Obispo and Los Gatos. 

“The shifting mindset from younger generations about ownership is a huge contributor to increased growth of the Swimply marketplace,” said co-founder Weinberger, who serves as Swimply’s COO. “Swimming is the third most popular activity for adults and number one for children, and yet no other company has tackled the aquatic space to make swimming more affordable and accessible…until now.”

While the company declined to provide hard revenue figures, Laskin said Swimply was seeing “7 digits a month in revenue” and 15,000 to 20,000 reservations a month. Families represent the most popular reservation.

“People can book and pay through our platform, and only 20% of hosts ever meet their guests,” Laskin said. “We’re enabling a new kind of consumer behavior with what we’re doing.”

The company is planning to use its new capital to also rebuild much of its tech infrastructure and boost its customer support team to be more “readily available.”

It is also now offering a complimentary up to $1 million worth of insurance per booking for liability as well as $10,000.

Swimply has a little over 20 employees, up 10 times from 2 people in December of 2020. It plans to double that number over the next few months.

The company’s model has proven quite lucrative for some owners, according to Laskin.

“Last year, there were some owners who earned $10,000 a month. One owner in Denver earned $50,000 last year and he had signed up toward the end of the summer. He should make over $100,000 this year,” Lasken projects.

Its only criteria is that owners offer a clean pool. Eighty five percent of hosts offer restrooms as well. If they don’t, they are limited to one-hour reservations with a max of five guests. Swimply has also partnered with local pool companies, and if they pay one of its owners a visit and certify that pool, that owner gets a badge on the site “so guests get an additional level of security,” Laskin said.

Ed Yip of Norwest Venture Partners admits that when he first heard of the concept of Swimply, he “didn’t know what to make of it.”

But the more he heard about it, the more excited he got.

“This is the holy grail for a consumer investor. We’re not changing consumer behavior, but rather productize the experience and make it safer and easier on both sides,” Yip told TechCrunch.

What also gets the investor excited is the potential for Swimply beyond just swimming pools in the future.

“We’re seeing a ton of demand from hosts wanting to list hot tubs and tennis courts, for example,” Yip said. “So this can turn into a marketplace for shared outdoor resources and that’s a huge market opportunity that adds value on both sides.”

Indeed, the concept of monetizing underutilized space is a growing concept. Earlier this year, we reported on Neighbor, which operates a self-storage marketplace, raising $53 million in a Series B round of funding. Neighbor’s unique model aims to repurpose under-utilized or vacant space — whether it be a person’s basement or the empty floor of an office building — and turn it into storage.

 

 

Facebook’s hand-picked ‘oversight’ panel upholds Trump ban — for now

Facebook’s content decision review body, a quasi-external panel that’s been likened to a ‘Supreme Court of Facebook’ but isn’t staffed by sitting judges, can’t be truly independent of the tech giant which funds it, has no legal legitimacy or democratic accountability, and goes by the much duller official title ‘Oversight Board’ (aka the FOB) — has just made the biggest call of its short life…

Facebook’s hand-picked ‘oversight’ panel has voted against reinstating former U.S. president Donald Trump’s Facebook account.

However it has sought to row the company back from an ‘indefinite’ ban — finding fault with its decision to impose an indefinite restriction, rather than issue a more standard penalty (such as a penalty strike or permanent account closure).

In a press release announcing its decision the board writes:

Given the seriousness of the violations and the ongoing risk of violence, Facebook was justified in suspending Mr. Trump’s accounts on January 6 and extending that suspension on January 7.

However, it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.

It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”

The board wants Facebook to revision its decision on Trump’s account within six months — and “decide the appropriate penalty”. So it appears to have succeeded in… kicking the can down the road.

The FOB is due to hold a press conference to discuss its decision shortly so stay tuned for updates.

This story is developing… refresh for updates…

It’s certainly been a very quiet five months on mainstream social media since Trump had his social media ALL CAPS megaphone unceremoniously shut down in the wake of his supporters’ violent storming of the capital.

For more on the background to Trump’s deplatforming do make time for this excellent explainer by TechCrunch’s Taylor Hatmaker. But the short version is that Trump finally appeared to have torched the last of his social media rule-breaking chances after he succeeded in fomenting an actual insurrection on U.S. soil on January 6. Doing so with the help of the massive, mainstream social media platforms whose community standards don’t, as a rule, give a thumbs up to violent insurrection…

With backers like Tiger Global, LatAm crypto exchange Bitso raises $250M at a $2.2B valuation

Bitso, a regulated crypto exchange in Latin America, announced today it has raised $250 million in a Series C round of funding that values the company at $2.2 billion.

Tiger Global and Coatue co-led the round, which also included participation from Paradigm, BOND & Valor Capital Group and existing backers QED, Pantera Capital and Kaszek.

The news caught our attention for several reasons. For one, it comes just four months after the startup raised $62 million in a Series B round. Secondly, the company believes the funding makes it the most valuable crypto platform in Latin America. And lastly, it also makes the company one of the most highly valued fintechs in the region.

Last year was a good one for Bitso, which says it processed more than $1.2 billion in international payments — including remittances and payments between companies — during 2020 alone. Bitso says it also has surpassed 2 million users. These two milestones, the company argues, is evidence of the growing use of crypto as an everyday financial tool in the region.

Demand for crypto assets and crypto-enabled financial products have soared in popularity both for individuals and businesses in the region, according to Bitso, which aims to be “the safest, most transparent, and only regulatory compliant platform” in Latin America. The company also says it’s the only player in the region to offer crypto-insurance for its client’s funds.

“The growth of the crypto ecosystem this year has been remarkable. It took Bitso six years to get its first million clients. Now — less than 10 months later — we have reached the 2 million mark,” said Bitso co-founder and CEO Daniel Vogel. But the metrics he is most proud of are that Bitso has also more than doubled the assets on its platform in the last five months and that its transacting volume during the 2021 first quarter exceeded the transaction volume it did in all of 2020.

Bitso was founded in January 2014 and acquired its first customer in April of that year.

Bitso’s mission, put simply, is to build next-generation borderless financial services for consumers and businesses alike. “Cryptocurrencies are the future of finance and Bitso makes the future available today,” the company says.

“Bitso offers products and services for individuals and businesses to use crypto in their everyday life,” Vogel said. “In some parts of the world, crypto is associated with speculation. Bitso’s customers rely on the technology for everyday uses from receiving remittances to engaging in international commerce.”

Image Credits: Bitso

Bitso says its “global-minded” product offerings fit the needs of local customers in Mexico, Argentina and now Brazil, where it just launched its retail operations. The company plans to use its new capital toward broadening its capabilities and product offering. It also plans to expand its operations in other Latin American countries in the coming months. In January, the Financial Superintendence of Colombia announced Bitso as one of the authorized companies in its Sandbox and crypto pilot program.

Bitso’s upcoming products include a crypto derivatives platform and interest bearing accounts for crypto.

“This is a pivotal moment for the future of finance in Latin America,” Vogel told TechCrunch. “We see a significant amount of traditional financial infrastructure in the region being replaced by crypto. We plan to use this funding to continue that trend by expanding our product offering for individuals and businesses.”

Naturally, Bitso’s investors are bullish on the company’s potential.

QED Investors co-founder and managing partner Nigel Morris admits that in the past he was “a crypto denier.”

“For the longest time, we didn’t see a way crypto fit. It wasn’t clear until recently that the use cases for crypto expanded much beyond speculative trading. There are now a whole series of conventional banking products that we can wrap around it,” Morris told TechCrunch.

Bitso’s mission, he said, is to “make crypto useful” and QED believes the company is succeeding at doing just that.

“Daniel and the entire Bitso team is passionate about taking the mystique out of crypto. Crypto is not going away; it’s going to be here for the future,” Morris said. “By sitting at the intersection of crypto and traditional financial institutions, Bitso has a promise to provide lower-cost, friction-free financial services to entire populations of individuals who otherwise would be excluded — a laudable and unique mission indeed.”

Bitso, he added, is learning from the crypto experience in the U.S. and around the world.

“Not making the same mistakes and leaning into the emerging regulatory landscape has been a competitive advantage to Bitso’s success in Mexico,” Morris said. “As Bitso grows throughout the regions, they certainly have a leg up and might even leapfrog crypto adoption in the U.S.”

“Crypto is rapidly gaining adoption in Latin America,” said Tiger Global Partner Scott Shleifer, in a written statement. “We are excited to partner with Bitso and believe they have the right team and platform to increase share in this growing market.”

Founded in 2014, Bitso has more than 300 employees across 25 different countries. That compares to 116 employees last year at this time. In particular, its growth in Brazil is increasing exponentially.

“We’ve gone from 1 to 26 Bitsonauts already based in Brazil, with many more working from abroad, and plan to 3X our number of hires in Brazil by the end of the year,” Vogel said, who acknowledged that the pandemic really impacted his company via the shift to remote work. “As we expand our reach into new territories, it has become a lot easier to meet staffing needs when the requirements are based on knowledge over geography.”

Bitso’s leadership is mostly based in Mexico, but the company also has offices in Buenos Aires, São Paolo and Gibraltar.

How to break into Silicon Valley as an outsider

Domm Holland, co-founder and CEO of e-commerce startup Fast, appears to be living a founder’s dream.

His big idea came from a small moment in his real life. Holland watched as his wife’s grandmother tried to order groceries, but she had forgotten her password and wasn’t able to complete the transaction.

“I just remember thinking it was preposterous,” Holland said. “It defied belief that some arbitrary string of text was a blocker to commerce.”

So he built a prototype of a passwordless authentication system where users would fill out their information once and would never need to do so again. Within 24 hours, tens of thousands of people had used it.

Nothing beats building human networks. That’s the way that you’re going to get this done in terms of fundraising.

Shoppers weren’t the only ones on board with this idea. In less than two years, Holland has raised $124 million in three rounds of fundraising, bringing on partners like Index Ventures and Stripe.

Although the success of Fast’s one-click checkout product has been speedy, it hasn’t been effortless.

For one thing, Holland is Australian, which means he started out as a Silicon Valley outsider. When he arrived in the U.S. in the summer of 2019, he had exactly one Bay Area contact in his phone. He built his network from the ground up, a strategic process he credits to one thing: hard work.

On an episode of the “How I Raised It” podcast, Holland talks about how he built his network, why it’s important — not just for fundraising but for building the entire business — and how to avoid the mistakes he sees new founders make.

Reach out with relevance

Holland’s primary strategy in building networks sounds like an obvious one — reach out to relevant people.

“When I first got to the States, I wanted to build networks,” Holland said, “but I didn’t really know anyone here in the Bay Area. So I spent a lot of time reaching out to relevant people — people working in payments, people working in technology, people working in identity authentication — just really relevant people in the space working in Big Tech who were building large-scale networks.”

One of the people Holland connected with was Allison Barr Allen, then the head of global product operations at Uber. Barr Allen managed her own angel investment fund, but Holland wasn’t actually looking for money when he reached out to her. He was much more interested in her perspective as the leader of an enormous financial services operation.

Personalized nutrition startup Zoe closes out Series B at $53M total raise

Personalized nutrition startup Zoe — named not for a person but after the Greek word for ‘life’ — has topped up its Series B round with $20M, bringing the total raised to $53M.

The latest close of the B round was led by Ahren Innovation Capital, which the startup notes counts two Nobel laureates as science partners. Also participating are two former American football players, Eli Manning and Ositadimma “Osi” Umenyiora; Boston, US-based seed fund Accomplice; healthcare-focused VC firm THVC and early stage European VC, Daphni.

The U.K.- and U.S.-based startup was founded back in 2017 but operated in stealth mode for three years, while it was conducting research into the microbiome — working with scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital, Stanford Medicine, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and King’s College London.

One of the founders, professor Tim Spector of King’s College — who is also the author of a number of popular science books focused on food — became interested in the role of food (generally) and the microbiome (in particular) on overall health after spending decades researching twins to try to understand the role of genetics (nature) vs nurture (environmental and lifestyle factors) on human health.

Zoe used data from two large-scale microbiome studies to build its first algorithm which it began commercializing last September — launching its first product into the U.S. market: A home testing kit that enables program participants to learn how their body responds to different foods and get personalized nutrition advice.

The program costs around $360 (which Zoe takes in six instalments) and requires participants to (self) administer a number of tests so that it can analyze their biology, gleaning information about their metabolic and gut health by looking at changes in blood lipids, blood sugar levels and the types of bacteria in their gut.

Zoe uses big data and machine learning to come up with predictive insights on how people will respond to different foods so that it can offer individuals guided advice on what and how to eat, with the goal of improving gut health and reducing inflammatory responses caused by diet.

The combination of biological responses it analyzes sets it apart from other personalized nutrition startups with products focused on measuring one element (such as blood sugar) — is the claim.

But, to be clear, Zoe’s first product is not a regulated medical device — and its FAQ clearly states that it does not offer medical diagnosis or treatment for specific conditions. Instead it says only that it’s “a tool that is meant for general wellness purposes only”. So — for now — users have to take it on trust that the nutrition advice it dishes up is actually helpful for them.

The field of scientific research into the microbiome is undoubtedly early — Zoe’s co-founder states that very clearly when we talk — so there’s a strong component here, as is often the case when startups seek to use data and AI to generate valuable personalized predictions, whereby early adopters are helping to further Zoe’s research by contributing their data. Potentially ahead of the sought for individual efficacy, given so much is still unknown around how what we eat affects our health.

For those willing to take a punt (and pay up), they get an individual report detailing their biological responses to specific foods that compares them to thousands of others. The startup also provides them with individualized ‘Zoe’ scores for specific foods in order to support meal planning that’s touted as healthier for them.

“Reduce your dietary inflammation and improve gut health with a 4 week plan tailored to your unique biology and life,” runs the blurb on Zoe’s website. “Built around your food scores, our app will teach you how to make smart swaps, week by week.”

The marketing also claims no food is “off limits” — implying there’s a difference between Zoe’s custom food scores and (weight-loss focused) diets that perhaps require people to cut out a food group (or groups) entirely.

“Our aim is to empower you with the information and tools you need to make the best decisions for your body,” is Zoe’s smooth claim.

The underlying premise is that each person’s biology responds differently to different foods. Or, to put it another way, while we all most likely know at least one person who stays rake-thin and (seemingly) healthy regardless of what (or even how much) they eat, if we ate the same diet we’d probably expect much less pleasing results.

“What we’re able to start scientifically putting some evidence behind is something that people have talked about for a long time,” says co-founder George Hadjigeorgiou. “It’s early [for scientific research into the microbiome] but we have shown now to the world that even twins have different gut microbiomes, we can change our gut microbiomes through diet, lifestyle and how we live — and also that there are associations around particular [gut] bacteria and foods and a way to improve them which people can actually do through our product.”

Users of Zoe’s first product need to be willing (and able) to get pretty involved with their own biology — collecting stool samples, performing finger prick tests and wearing a blood glucose monitor to feed in data so it can analyze how their body responds to different foods and offer up personalized nutrition advice.

Another component of its study of biological responses to food has involved thousands of people eating “special scientific muffins”, which it makes to standardized recipes, so it can benchmark and compare nutritional responses to a particular blend of calories, carbohydrate, fat, and protein.

While eating muffins for science sounds pretty fine, the level of intervention required to make use of Zoe’s first at-home test kit product is unlikely to appeal to those with only a casual interest in improving their nutrition.

Hadjigeorgiou readily agrees the program, as it is now, is for those with a particular problem to solve that can be linked to diet/nutrition (whether obesity, high cholesterol or a disease like type 2 diabetes, and so on). But he says Zoe’s goal is to be able to open up access to personalized nutrition advice much more widely as it keeps gathering more data and insights.

“The idea is, as always, we start with a focused set of people with problems to solve who we believe will have a life-changing experience,” he tells TechCrunch. “At this point we are not trying to create a product for everyone — and we understand that that has limitations in terms of how much we scale in the beginning. Although even still within this focused group of people I can assure you there’s tonnes of people!

“But absolutely the whole idea is that after we get a first [set of users]… then with more data and with more experience we can simplify and start making this simpler and more accessible — both in terms of its simplicity and also it’s price. So more and more people. Because at the end of the day everyone has this right to be able to optimize and understand and be in control — and we want to make that available to everyone.

“Regardless of background and regardless of socio-economic status. And, in fact, many of the people who have the biggest problems around health etc are the ones who have maybe less means and ability to do that.”

Zoe isn’t disclosing how many early users it’s onboarded so far but Hadjigeorgiou says demand is high (it’s currently operating a wait-list for new sign ups).

He also touts promising early results from interim trial with its first users — saying participants experienced more energy (90%), felt less hunger (80%) and lost an average of 11 pounds after three months of following their AI-aided, personalized nutrition plan. Albeit, without data on how many people are involved in the trials it’s not possible to quantify the value of those metrics.

The extra Series B funding will be used to accelerate the rollout of availability of the program, with a U.K. launch planned for this year — and other geographies on the cards for 2022. Spending will also go on continued recruitment in engineering and science, it says.

Zoe already grabbed some eyeballs last year, as the coronavirus pandemic hit the West, when it launched a COVID-19 symptom self-reporting app. It has used that data to help scientists and policy makers understand how the virus affects people.

The Zoe COVID-19 app has had some 5M users over the last year, per Hadjigeorgiou — who points to that (not-for-profit) effort as an example of the kind of transformative intervention the company hopes to drive in the nutrition space down the line.

“Overnight we got millions and millions of people contributing to help uncover new insights around science around COVID-19,” he says, highlighting that it’s been able to publish a number of research papers based on data contributed by app users. “For example the lack of smell and taste… was something that we first [were able to prove] scientifically, and then it became — because of that — an official symptom in the list of the government in the U.K.

“So that was a great example how through the participation of people — in a very, very fast way, which we couldn’t predict when we launched it — we managed to have a big impact.”

Returning to diet, aren’t there some pretty simple ‘rules of thumb’ that anyone can apply to eat more healthily — i.e. without the need to shell out for a bespoke nutrition plan? Basic stuff like eat your greens, avoid processed foods and cut down (or out) sugar?

“There are definitely rules of thumb,” Hadjigeorgiou agrees. “We’ll be crazy to say they’re not. I think it all comes back to the point that although there are rules of thumb and over time — and also through our research, for example — they can become better, the fact of the matter is that most people are becoming less and less healthy. And the fact of the matter is that life is messy and people do not eat even according to these rules of thumb so I think part of the challenge is… [to] educate and empower people for their messy lives and their lifestyle to actually make better choices and apply them in a way that’s sustainable and motivating so they can be healthier.

“And that’s what we’re finding with our customers. We are helping them to make these choices in an empowering way — they don’t need to count calories, they don’t need to restrict themselves through a Keto [diet] regime or something like that. We basically empower them to understand this is the impact food has on your body — real time, how your blood sugar levels change, how your bacteria change, how your blood fat levels changes. And through that empowerment through insight then we say hey, now we’ll give you this course, it’s very simple, it’s like a game — and we’ll given you all these tools to combine different foods, make foods work for you. No food is off limits — but try to eat most days a 75 score [based on the food points Zoe’s app assigns].

“In that very empowering way we see people get very excited, they see a fun game that is also impacting their gut and metabolism and they start feeling these amazing effects — in terms of less hunger, more energy, losing weight and over time as well evolving their health. That’s why they say it’s life changing as well.”

Gamifying research for the goal of a greater good? To the average person that surely sounds more appetitizing than ‘eat your greens’.

Though, as Hadjigeorgiou concedes, research in the field of microbiome — where Zoe’s commercial interests and research USP lie — is “early”. Which means that gathering more data to do more research will remain a key component of the business for the foreseeable future. And with so much still to be understood about the complex interactions between food, exercise and other lifestyle factors and human health, the mission is indeed massive.

In the meanwhile, Zoe will be taking it one suggestive nudge at a time.

“Sugar is bad, kale’s great but the whole kind of magic happens in the middle,” Hadjigeorgiou goes on. “Is oatmeal good for you? Is rice good for you? Is wholewheat pasta good for you? How do you combine wholewheat pasta and butter? How much do you have? This is where basically most of our life happens.

“Because people don’t eat ice-cream the whole day and people don’t eat kale the whole day. They eat all these other foods in the middle and that’s where the magic is — knowing how much to have, how to combine them to make it better, how to combine it with exercise to make it better? How to eat a food that doesn’t dip your sugar levels three hours after you eat it which causes hunger for you. Theses are all the things we’re able to predict and present in a simple and compelling way through a score system to people — and in turn help them [understand their] metabolic response to food.”