Still in stealth mode, Duffel raises $21.5m in Series A from Benchmark for its travel platform

Ten months ago London startup hinted that it would be “a new way to book travel online, aiming at the booking experience ‘end to end’”, announced a healthy $4.7M funding round, but not much else.

Today it goes further, announcing a $21.5m in Series A funding from VC giant Benchmark, which also backed Snap, Twitter and Uber. Benchmark is joined by Blossom Capital and Index Ventures, who participated in Duffel’s $4.7m seed round last year.

With this news, we at least get a little more detail. It will be a B2B offering, allowing individual travel agents to large online travel management companies and tour operators to offer a “seamless travel experience” to their end customers, making the booking experience simpler, faster and cheaper.

Is this a new Sabre? Steve Domin, co-founder and CEO of Duffel, hints that it is: “The travel industry is underpinned by archaic software and processes that are fundamentally prohibitive for the modern day traveler. We are reinventing the underwiring between online agents and the providers – airlines, hotels, transport operators – in much the same way that the payments world is changing for merchants, because of tools like Adyen and Stripe.”

In other words, Duffel appears to be building a new software stack for travel, in the same way that challenge banks started from scratch to make themselves more agile than the laggard, incumbent banks.

Duffel was one of the Y Combinator S18 cohort and have put together a team drawn from their alumni companies including GoCardless, Gitlab and Turo. It plans to launch this Autumn.

Chetan Puttagunta, general partner at Benchmark, said: “We have been watching Duffel from a distance and we are incredibly excited by the possibility it has to create something valuable for customers and travel providers alike. Duffel is focused on providing a better booking experience by building a platform that is easy to use with deep functionality.”

Ophelia Brown, founder of Blossom Capital, said: “Duffel has been clear on its vision to improve the travel experience for everyone from day one. This is a great example of the way that European founders are becoming more ambitious than ever before.”

The market is waiting with baited-breath to find out if Duffel’s stellar fund-raising capabilities can eventually match the claims made for the product.

Berlin’s Cherry Ventures raises new €175M fund to back early-stage startups across Europe

Cherry Ventures, the Berlin-based investor that backs European companies predominantly at seed-stage, has raised a third fund.

The new “Cherry Ventures III” has closed at €175 million and will continue to be focused on seed, although the firm has historically invested at pre-seed and Series A, too. It will remain fairly industry agnostic, backing promising founders and startups both in B2C and B2B.

Existing investments span numerous sectors and include marketplaces (Auto1), mobility (Flixbus), travel (TourRadar), farming and the food chain (Infarm) and logistics (Freighthub), to name just a few. “We are a generalistic [sic] fund and invest across different industry verticals and business models,” explains Cherry Ventures co-founder Filip Dames.

To that end, Cherry says it will begin writing cheques out the new fund this month, ranging in size between €300,000 and €5 million, although it wants to remain “quite flexible” on that front. The firm is also steadfastly backing Europe, where it continues to see “exciting” opportunities.

Below follows an email Q&A with Cherry co-founders founders Filip Dames and Christian Meermann where we discuss the new fund’s remit, why Cherry remains bullish on Europe, what “founder-centric” venture capital looks like, and of course Brexit!

TC: Cherry invests at pre-seed and seed stage (and occasionally Series A) across Europe. Can you be more specific regarding the size of cheque you write and the types of companies, technologies, business models or sectors you are focussing on?

CM: Sure, first of all, seed is our core stage and what we love to invest in. Most of our deals in the last fund were at seed, including pre-seed deals where we backed successful serial entrepreneurs even before the start of their next venture. Cheque sizes vary between €300,000 and €5 million, we are quite flexible there.

FD: In terms of investment focus, we are a generalistic fund and invest across different industry verticals and business models. Six years ago we started with a strong B2C focus with our portfolio companies like Auto1, Flixbus, and TourRadar, but quickly broadened this focus towards B2B with companies like Infarm and Freighthub.

TC: I note that over half of your portfolio companies are based outside of Germany. Was that deliberate and can you share a bit more on how you view the strengths and weaknesses of Germany’s tech hubs vs other tech ecosystems across Europe?

CM: At Cherry we believe that good companies can come from anywhere and this is why we look broader than only Germany and invest across all European ecosystems. Germany has had a very strong last decade in venture with funding peaking at 4.4bn € last year, and it is well positioned to bring this to the next level in the coming years. Berlin, as Germany’s major tech hub has built up a very strong and international talent base. More and more serial entrepreneurs and operators are helping the ecosystem thrive and setting the right foundations for the future.

TC: Is Brexit good or bad for European tech or arguably just bad for the U.K.? Perhaps you can provide your perspective on Brexit as an early-stage VC firm based in Europe but outside of the United Kingdom.

FD: Brexit was one of the most stupid decisions in the last decade and goes against the core of what we believe in: a strong Europe positioned to build the global market leaders of tomorrow. Brexit will harm Europe’s reputation and financial and economic stability. But London and the UK will remain a thriving ecosystem for European technology. So far we have not seen a strong push from UK-based entrepreneurs or companies moving to other European tech hubs because of Brexit. Berlin should have a strong position going forward in attracting any talent leaving the UK as it offers a very attractive environment with a strong international talent pool, low infrastructural costs of running a company, and still fairly moderate salary levels compared to other European capitals.

TC: You say that Cherry wants to “build the most founder-centric early-stage fund in Europe”. Given that in the current climate of arguably an abundance of funding almost every VC is claiming to be “founder-centric,” can you provide some tangible examples of how Cherry is more so or better in this regard?

CM: Everyone on the investment team has been an entrepreneur or operator, so the idea of “Founders First” really runs through our DNA here at Cherry. We see ourselves as a true sparring partner for our portfolio companies, providing advice to build solid foundations and navigate their route to scale. We have also built up internal resources that help founders engage with all other portfolio companies and our team to exchange learnings and know-how, share strong candidates in hiring, etc. Additionally, we support them in recruiting and firm building with our HR team that has already hired CFOs, COOs, and Heads of Sales for various portfolio companies that highly appreciate this support.

TC: You also write that Cherry remains long on Europe as one of the most exciting places in the world to build and invest in companies. Given the myriad issues facing Europe, macro economically and politically, where is that excitement coming from?

FD: There are definitely various macro-economic challenges Europe is facing, but I can think of at least the same amount and magnitude for the US and China. So comparatively, it’s not that bad. ;-)

However, our excitement for European venture does not come only from macro-economic factors, more from the maturity of the European tech ecosystem that is bringing up more and more successful and promising founders with the ambition to build global market leaders. The recent influx of international capital in growth rounds underlines this very clearly.

TC: Is European regulation a strength or a weakness for European tech?

CM: Overall regulation is rather a weakness for European tech and many processes on the way to building a successful company are still way too bureaucratic and slow. However, I would not let this count as an excuse why our European tech scene is still lagging behind. Moreover, European governments should debate more about how to incentivise investments into tech and introduce schemes to mobilise capital from pension funds and corporates to be channeled into venture. This is one of the key funding sources in the US and clearly way behind here in Europe.

TC: Lastly, you’ve invested in quite a number of genuinely interesting companies that are making big bets on how the world is changing or how different things could be. One of those that I covered super early is Infarm, which is literally putting mini farms into grocery stores and appears to be doing well. Which are the founders or startups you’ve invested in to date that have surprised you the most so far?

FD: The surprising thing about great founders is that they often explore totally new territories that nobody ever thought about at seed stage. Infarm wants to change how food is produced in a hugely growing urban population, AMBOSS and Medwing are working on improving medical care by providing knowledge and decision support to doctors around the world. The impact of companies like this can be huge. What makes us so excited about this job is to see founders grow in terms of their vision with every milestone they reach on their journey.

Blue Prism acquires UK’s Thoughtonomy for up to $100M to expand its RPA platform with more AI

Robotic process automation — which lets organizations shift repetitive back office tasks to machines to complete — has been a hot area of growth in the world of enterprise IT, and now one of the companies that’s making waves in the area has acquired a smaller startup to continue extending its capabilities.

Blue Prism, which helped coin the term RPA when it was founded back in 2001, has announced that it is buying Thoughtonomy, which has built a cloud-based AI engine that delivers RPA-based solutions on an SaaS framework. Blue Prism is publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange — where its market cap is around £1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) and in a statement to the market alongside its half-year earnings, it said it would be paying up to £80 million ($100 million) for the firm.

The deal is coming in a combination of cash and stock: £12.5 million payable on completion of the deal, £23 million in shares payable on completion of the deal, up to £20 million payable a year after the deal closes; up to £4.5 million in cash after 18 months, and a final £20 million on the second anniversary of the deal closing, in shares. Thoughtonomy had never raised outside funding, although that was not for lack of interest:

“We’ve had approaches on a daily basis since the intelligent automation market has exploded,” said Terry Walby, CEO and founder of Thoughtonomy, in an interview, “but getting the best outcome for the company and our customers is not just about taking money and headlines [touting] our valuation.”

The acquisition comes about six months after Blue Prism announced that it would be raising around $130 million (£100 million) to continue growing at a time when RPA is getting a lot of attention in the market. Linda Dotts, the company’s SVP of global partner strategy and programs, today confirmed that it did raise that money, and that part of the proceeds of that are being used to make the Thoughtonomy acquisition. She also confirmed that it would be looking at other opportunities, a sign that we are likely going to see at least a little more consolidation in this space.

On the same day that it had announced that fundraise, Blue Prism also unveiled a new AI initiative, working with partners to execute on that. And indeed that is what it is getting with Thoughtonomy. The companies were already working together before this — Thoughtonomy’s other key partners are companies like Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud, used to deliver its services — and according to Walby, the idea is that his startup will be helping Blue Prism get its services to the next level of where RPA is going.

“We provide architectural support and add intelligence,” he said in an interview. “Our platform addresses activities that require understanding or interpretation, and so it expands the use cases for RPA beyond structured processes.”

That’s notable given the position of Blue Prism within the RPA landscape. The company is one of the more legacy providers — one of the consequences of being an early mover — and while that gives it a clear advantage of showing it has staying power, in the world of software that can be a more challenging sell when younger companies are building tech from scratch on newer frameworks. (UiPath, which has made major inroads into RPA both in terms of its customer and partner growth, as well as in terms of its funding, is one example.)

And in a market that is still seeing growth (read: companies often operate at a loss to invest in that growth), its ups and downs are there for everyone to see and scrutinise. In its half-year earnings that it posted today, its negative EBITDA margin widened, while group revenues only inched up slightly to £41.6 million and monthly recurring revenues were flat. The longer term picture is a little more interesting, though, with total customer numbers up 91 percent over the same period a year ago.

Microsoft’s first data center regions in the Middle East are now generally available

Microsoft today announced that is first data center regions in the Middle East are now online. The data centers are located in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and will offer local access to the usual suite of services, including Azure’s cloud computing services and Office 365. Support for Dynamics 365 and Microsoft’s Power Platform will arrive later this year.

“In our experience, local datacenter infrastructure supports and stimulates economic
development for both customers and partners alike, enabling companies, governments and regulated industries to realize the benefits of the cloud for innovation and new projects, as well as bolstering the technology ecosystem that supports these projects,” Microsoft’s corporate VP Azure Global writes in today’s announcement. “We anticipate the cloud services delivered from UAE to have a positive impact on job creation, entrepreneurship and economic growth across the region.”

The company first announced these new regions last March. Back in 2017, Microsoft’s cloud rival, Amazon’s AWS, said it would offer a region in Bahrain in early 2019. This region is not online yet, but is still listed as ‘coming soon‘ on the service’s infrastructure map. Google currently has no data center presence in the Middle East and hasn’t announced any plans to change this.

Meero raises $230 million for its on-demand photo platform

Chances are you always look at photos before you order food in your favorite food delivery app, or before you book a hotel room. French startup Meero wants to make the web and mobile apps look beautiful by helping businesses get good photos. And the company just raised a $230 million funding round.

Eurazeo, Prime Ventures and Avenir Growth are leading today’s funding round. Existing investors include Global Founders Capital, Aglaé Ventures, Alven, White Star Capital and Idinvest. The company says it represents the largest Series C round in France.

At its core, Meero is a comprehensive marketplace of photographers all around the world. This way, companies can find a freelancer and get photos back in less than 24 hours. Essentially, getting professional shots becomes an on-demand process.

The company currently focuses on a few key industries, including real estate, food, experiences, retail and e-commerce. Maybe your favorite Instagram-native brand relies on Meero for their product shots.

But Meero knows that plenty of photographers don’t need leads. That’s why the startup is also providing many services to make their lives easier.

And it start with getting the basics right. Meero takes care of the paperwork. You don’t have to send a contract, you don’t have to collect money from your clients. Of course, Meero takes a cut on transactions.

The company has also been working on automatic photo editing algorithms. If a photographer wants to accept more photo shoots, they need to spend less time editing photos. So Meero is working on AI-powered technology to automatically improve raw shots.

There are currently 80 people on the tech team, and the company plans to grow the tech team to 300 people to go further on this topic.

In the future, Meero plans to launch masterclasses and documentaries for their photographers. There will be more meetups so that photographers can talk together. And the company also plans to unveil a magazine and a foundation to support photography.

But the bigger news is that Meero plans to open up the marketplace to individual customers. And yes, it means that your next wedding could be powered by Meero — that’s a lucrative industry.

Meero has managed to attract 31,000 clients in 100 countries. There are currently 58,000 photographers on the platform. 600 people work directly for Meero across five different offices.

Twitter will remove precise location tagging in tweets, citing lack of use

Update: An earlier version of this post said Twitter is removing location tagging in tweets. In fact, it is only removing the ability to share precise location details like latitude and longitude.

In an announcement today from its support account, Twitter said it is removing the option to tag precise locations in tweets. The feature will still be available for photos through Twitter’s updated camera. The company said this is because “most people don’t tag their precise location in Tweets.”

Twitter users can opt out of location sharing features in its “privacy and safety” menu. If you don’t want to share your precise location details, you should continue keeping the feature turned off since it is still available in Twitter’s camera.

Twitter's location tagging feature for tweets on its website

Twitter’s location tagging feature for tweets on its website

After the precise location sharing feature for tweets is removed, users who want to share where they are can do so through services like Foursquare.

San Francisco is getting closer to an e-cigarette ban to protect kids, but it may hurt adult smokers who use vaping to quit

San Francisco is getting closer to banning the sale of e-cigarettes in the city in a bid to prevent minors from accessing them—but the new legislation may also hurt adult smokers who are trying to quit. The city’s Board of Supervisors today voted unanimously to approve two proposals: legislation that would ban the sale or delivery of e-cigarettes in San Francisco and a separate proposal that would prohibit the sale, manufacturing and distribution of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, on property owned or managed by the city.

The bill to ban the sale of e-cigarettes at stores in the city, as well as the delivery of e-cigarettes purchased online for delivery to San Francisco addresses, still requires final approval. If it passes (a likely outcome since the board voted 11-0 to pass the ordinance), it will go into effect seven months after it is signed by the mayor. Juul, which is headquartered in San Francisco, has already started lobbying to stop the ban.

The second proposed ordinance to ban the sale of e-cigarettes on city property will require two readings and needs to pass a second vote next week before it can be put into effect. It seems designed to take aim at Juul, since the company’s headquarters are in city-owned buildings at Pier 70. (Juul recently bought an office tower on Mission Street, but says it plans to keep its headquarters at Pier 70.)

Many of the most serious concerns over vaping center on underage use. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s research shows the number of middle and high school students who use tobacco products grew from 3.6 million in 2017 to 4.9 million in 2018. The increase was driven in part by e-cigarette use, which rose from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018 among middle and high school students.

The use of e-cigarettes by minors is indisputably harmful, especially because nicotine, which is derived from tobacco plants, can harm brain development. Juul, which controls three-fourths of the U.S. e-cigarette market according to Nielsen, has also been accused of contributing to the increase in tobacco product use among teens by lowering the barrier to entry for nicotine addiction. It is currently trying to win favor with regulators by taking steps to prevent underage users from accessing their products.

But a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes may also hurt adult smokers who use vaping to transition off cigarettes. While many vape juices contain nicotine, some are also available without the highly addictive chemical. Juul has drawn fire for only offering pods that contain nicotine, but vapers also use refillable devices to gradually transition to juices with lower levels of nicotine, with some ultimately weaning themselves off dependency.

While the negative impact of both nicotine and cigarettes have been well documented, vaping is a relatively new technology, so there is still little information available about how it affects health. A study by researchers at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center found that urine from people who use e-cigarettes contained higher traces of lead, cadmium, pyrene and acrylonitrile than people who don’t smoke or vape.

On the other hand, some researchers support the use of vaping as a technique to help adult smokers quit or reduce their dependency on cigarettes. For example, the U.K. government recently launched a campaign to convince smokers to switch to vaping instead. From a health perspective, the ideal solution would be to not smoke or vape, but Public Health England, a government agency, claims vaping is 95% less harmful than smoking and said data from its smoking cessation program showed that 65% to 68% of smokers who used e-cigarettes with nicotine replacement therapies, like patches and gum, successfully quit.

Other places in the United States that are working on or have already passed legislation targeting vaping include Aspen City, which recently passed a ban on flavored e-cigarette products (vape juice comes in many flavors, including ones meant to mimic candy, and that has been blamed for making vaping more appealing to kids). In Maine, a bill is being sponsored that would essentially ban vaping by prohibiting the same of nicotine liquid containers. Many states also have laws in place that prohibit vaping wherever cigarettes are also banned.

Google will start attributing lyrics in its search results to their third-party providers

Earlier this week, music lyrics repository Genius accused Google of lifting lyrics and posting them on its search platform. Genius told the Wall Street Journal that this caused its site traffic to drop. Google, which initially denied wrongdoing but later said it was investigating the issue, addressed the controversy in a blog post today. The company said it will start including attribution to its third-party partners that provide lyrics in its information boxes.

When Google was first approached by the Wall Street Journal, it told the newspaper that the lyrics it displays are licensed by partners and not created by Google. But some of the lyrics (which are displayed in information boxes or cards called “Knowledge Panels” at the top of search results for songs) included Genius’ Morse code-based watermarking system. Genius said that over the past two years it repeatedly contacted Google about the issue. In one letter, sent in April, Genius told Google it was not only breaking the site’s terms of service, but also violating antitrust law—a serious allegation at a time when Google and other big tech companies are facing antitrust investigations by government regulators.

After the WSJ article was first published, Google released a statement that said it was investigating the problem and would stop working with lyric providers who are “not upholding good practices.”

In today’s blog post, Satyajeet Salgar, a group product manager at Google Search, wrote that the company pays “music publishers for the right to display lyrics, since they manage the rights to these lyrics on behalf of songwriters.” Because many music publishers license lyrics text from third-party lyric content providers, Google works with those companies.

“We do not crawl or scrape websites to source these lyrics. The lyrics you see in information boxes on Search come directly from lyrics content providers, and they are updated automatically as we receive new lyrics and corrections on a regular basis,” Salgar added.

These partners include LyricFind, which Google has had an agreement with since 2016. LyricFind’s chief executive told the WSJ that it does not source lyrics from Genius.

While Salgar’s post did not name any companies, he addressed the controversy by writing “news reports this week suggested that one of our lyrics content providers is in a dispute with a lyrics site about where their written lyrics come from. We’ve asked our partner to investigate the issue to ensure that they’re following industry best practices in their approach.”

In the future, Google will start including attribution to the company that provided the lyrics in its search results. “We will continue to take an approach that respects and compensates rights-holders, and ensures that music publishers and songwriters are paid for their work,” Salgar wrote.

Genius, which launched as Rap Genius in 2009, has been at loggerheads with Google before. In 2013, a SEO trick Rap Genius used to place itself higher in search results ran afoul of Google’s web spam team. Google retaliated by burying Rap Genius links under pages of other search results. The conflict was resolved after less than two weeks, but during that time Rap Genius’ traffic plummeted dramatically.

Google will start attributing lyrics in its search results to their third-party providers

Earlier this week, music lyrics repository Genius accused Google of lifting lyrics and posting them on its search platform. Genius told the Wall Street Journal that this caused its site traffic to drop. Google, which initially denied wrongdoing but later said it was investigating the issue, addressed the controversy in a blog post today. The company said it will start including attribution to its third-party partners that provide lyrics in its information boxes.

When Google was first approached by the Wall Street Journal, it told the newspaper that the lyrics it displays are licensed by partners and not created by Google. But some of the lyrics (which are displayed in information boxes or cards called “Knowledge Panels” at the top of search results for songs) included Genius’ Morse code-based watermarking system. Genius said that over the past two years it repeatedly contacted Google about the issue. In one letter, sent in April, Genius told Google it was not only breaking the site’s terms of service, but also violating antitrust law—a serious allegation at a time when Google and other big tech companies are facing antitrust investigations by government regulators.

After the WSJ article was first published, Google released a statement that said it was investigating the problem and would stop working with lyric providers who are “not upholding good practices.”

In today’s blog post, Satyajeet Salgar, a group product manager at Google Search, wrote that the company pays “music publishers for the right to display lyrics, since they manage the rights to these lyrics on behalf of songwriters.” Because many music publishers license lyrics text from third-party lyric content providers, Google works with those companies.

“We do not crawl or scrape websites to source these lyrics. The lyrics you see in information boxes on Search come directly from lyrics content providers, and they are updated automatically as we receive new lyrics and corrections on a regular basis,” Salgar added.

These partners include LyricFind, which Google has had an agreement with since 2016. LyricFind’s chief executive told the WSJ that it does not source lyrics from Genius.

While Salgar’s post did not name any companies, he addressed the controversy by writing “news reports this week suggested that one of our lyrics content providers is in a dispute with a lyrics site about where their written lyrics come from. We’ve asked our partner to investigate the issue to ensure that they’re following industry best practices in their approach.”

In the future, Google will start including attribution to the company that provided the lyrics in its search results. “We will continue to take an approach that respects and compensates rights-holders, and ensures that music publishers and songwriters are paid for their work,” Salgar wrote.

Genius, which launched as Rap Genius in 2009, has been at loggerheads with Google before. In 2013, a SEO trick Rap Genius used to place itself higher in search results ran afoul of Google’s web spam team. Google retaliated by burying Rap Genius links under pages of other search results. The conflict was resolved after less than two weeks, but during that time Rap Genius’ traffic plummeted dramatically.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will launch on June 21st

After a year of teasing out Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, Niantic (the company behind Pokémon GO) and WB Games have at long last announced an official release date: June 21st.

The news came this evening at a press event held just outside of Universal Studios’ Wizarding World (where else?), where Niantic also confirmed plans to hold events similar to its Pokémon GO Fests for this new Potter title.

The game first rolled out in a limited “beta” phase in early May, available only in Australia and New Zealand. I asked if the “June 21st” date was for a worldwide rollout, and was told June 21st marks the beginning of a wider country-by-country rollout beginning with the US and UK.