Pointy raises $12M Series B to help bricks and mortar retailers fight Amazon

Pointy​,​ the​ ​startup​ ​that​ offers tech to help ​bricks and mortar​ ​retailers put their stock online so that it can be discovered via search engines, has picked up $12 million in new funding. The Series B round is led Polaris Partners and Vulcan Capital, and brings total funding for the Irish company to $19 million.

Founded on the premise that people often resort to e-commerce behemoths like Amazon because they can’t find the same item locally, Pointy has developed a hardware and cloud software solution that makes it easy to create a bespoke website as means of making local stock discoverable online. Specifically, the ​”Pointy​ ​box”​ hardware ​gadget connects to a store’s barcode scanner and automatically puts scanned items on a Pointy-powered website for the store.

Store pages are then optimised for search engines, so that when you search for products locally — say your favourite artisan beer — a Pointy-powered result shows up and encourages you to visit the store and make a purchase. In other words, this is about helping local retailers drive more footfall, but with very little additional overhead.

Pointy CEO and co-founder Mark Cummins says the Series B round will be used by the startup to accelerate growth and build on an increased uptake by U.S. retailers. It currently counts 5,500 retailers using Pointy in total, with 70 percent from the U.S, and the remaining in Canada, U.K. and Ireland. “To put the U.S. number in context, just under 1 in 200 U.S retailers is now using Pointy,” a company spokesperson tells me.

Since we last covered Pointy, the started has extended its reach considerably with partnerships with Lightspeed, Clover and Square, which allows retailers using these POS systems to use the Pointy platform for free because it doesn’t require the purchase of the $499 Pointy device. It has also partnered with Google via the search giant’s new See What’s In Store (SWIS) program so that shoppers can discover what a store sells within Google’s search and maps pages.

“For all the hype around e-commerce and the media narrative of ‘Retail Apocalypse’, people still make the vast majority of their purchases in local stores,” adds Cummins in a statement. “But local retailers have lost out in not having their products visible online – we solve that problem for them”.

Meanwhile, Point’s previous backers include Draper Associates, Frontline Ventures, and notable angel investors such as Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress), Lars Rasmussen (co-founder of Google Maps), Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), and Michael Birch (co-founder of Bebo).

Xara Cloud is an easy to use design tool to help businesses create better looking content

Xara is on a mission to help businesses create better looking content, and in turn save us all from having to consume visually unappealing marketing and comms material. The German startup has developed Xara Cloud, a design tool that resides in the cloud and attempts to bridge the gap between professional design and business content created by non-design professionals.

Specifically, Xara Cloud consists of a drag and drop browser-based editor that lets you create designs using text, shapes, icons, charts and imported images, but with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. These include the ability to use off-the-shelf professionally created colour schemes or have the software create a new colour scheme based on an image, such as your company logo, that you’ve uploaded.

As you’d expect, you can also choose from a library of pre-made templates ranging from social media graphics to flyer and brochures to presentations. These can be designed on top of or tweaked ad nauseam, and in addition you can create your own templates to function as reusable assets.

The editor adheres to a smart grid system, too, which helps non-designers create more disciplined and visually appealing layouts. There are also collaboration features so you can easily create content as part of a team.

“The problem being solved is that there is a massive software gap between basic document editors like Word, PowerPoint, etc. and professional design software like Adobe,” Xara co-founder and CEO Matt Bolton tells me. “Xara Cloud is a robust suite of rich design and editing tools packaged in a drag and drop editing platform that allows anyone to create designer-quality documents… It is 100 percent browser-based with a consistent UI across all desktop and touch devices”.

Bolton says the business case for using Xara Cloud is that brand inconsistency impacts business revenue. “The estimated average revenue attributed to always presenting the brand consistently is 23 percent,” he says, citing a report by Zimmer Communication.

“Repetition and consistency are critical pillars of any branding effort. By a business presenting a brand consistently, over time, consumers will internalize the brand values and be more likely to purchase”.

To mitigate brand inconsistency, Xara Cloud lets you add your logo, fonts, and brand colours, which are then automatically applied to any of Xara Cloud’s templates. “This ensures that any document, no matter the type, will have the current and consistent brand when it reaches the customer,” adds the Xara co-founder.

Meanwhile, the Berlin-based startup is disclosing that it has raised €3 million in funding. Backing the young company is investment group Bellevue Investments & Co.

Lodgify, the SaaS for vacation rentals, books $5M in Series A funding

Lodgify, the Barcelona-based SaaS for property owners to manage vacation rentals, today announced it has secured $5 million in Series A funding.

Existing backers Nauta Capital, Howzat Partners, and a number of angels participated, in addition to new investor Intermedia Vermögensverwaltung. It brings total funding for the Spanish startup to $7.3 million yo date.

Primary pitched as a way for property owners to grow their direct vacation rental bookings, as opposed to solely relying on platforms like Airbnb or Booking.com, the Lodgify SaaS enables the creation of a mobile-friendly website for each property. Crucially, this includes the ability to accept online bookings and take payment.

“Just like Shopify became the decentralised platform for businesses by democratizing access to e-commerce technology, Lodgify is empowering lodging operators with direct channel technology,” the company’s co-founder and CEO Dennis Klett tells me. “That allows them to build their own booking channel to generate more direct bookings”.

To help support this, Lodgify is attempting to fully automate the booking workflow for hosts: from booking management, to guest communication, to payment scheduling and refunding in case of refundable cancellations. “All these steps basically run on autopilot, empowering our hosts to be instantly bookable and eliminating time-consuming tasks for them,” Klett says.

As part of these efforts, the company is keeping an eye on the development of crypto currencies and “smart contracts. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, Klett says this would allow for “self-executing and risk-free bookings”.

He is also bullish on the potential for direct bookings to continually grow, noting that a number of vacation booking sites, such as Housetrip, Roomoroma and 9flats, have either consolidated or disappeared over the the last couple of years.

“The direct channel is emerging to become a significant channel on par with the two to three major online travel agencies left in the market,” says Klett. “Since Lodgify’s primary product focus is on direct channel technology, we have been able to help our customers to significantly grow their share of direct bookings. This will remain our primary product focus for the coming years”.

That’s not to say Lodgify is ignoring Airbnb and Booking.com entirely. The startup’s software also supports both sites via “advanced API integrations,” making it easy to manage listings and for hosts to use Lodgify as a true multi-channel platform for direct and indirect bookings.

Meanwhile, I’m told Lodgify will use its Series A funding to scale the team, which now stands at 50 people, and to accelerate product development and increase marketing efforts globally. The company also recently hired Alex Vuilleumier as COO. He was previously a Director of Marketing at Expedia Group.

Former head of UberEats in Europe has joined VC Atomico as Executive-In-Residence

When long time Uber employee and head of Uber’s food delivery business in Europe, Middle East and Africa, Jambu Palaniappan, quit the on-demand juggernaut, it was let slip that he planned to join a European venture capital firm, but it wasn’t clear who.

Until now.

TechCrunch has learned from several sources in the European early-stage investment community and from a number of portfolio companies that the former UberEats executive has joined Atomico, the London-based VC firm co-founded by Skype founder Niklas Zennström.

Specifically, Palaniappan will be joining Atomico as part of its Executive-In-Residence (XiR) programme. This sees the VC firm offer former founders and senior operators 12 month contracts to help mentor the next generation of Atomico portfolio company founders while those individuals figure out what they want to do next.

Sources have also told me that a senior executive from Deepmind may have also joined the European VC but the exact name is still to be confirmed. Atomico did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publishing.

Meanwhile, according to Atomico’s website, another of its Executive-In-Residence is former Spotify employee number 8 Sophia Bendz, who was previously Global Director of Marketing and Communications at the music streaming giant. In addition, eRepublik Labs founder and CEO Alexis Bonte, and Rdio founder Carter Adamson, were both XiR’s but have since chosen to stay on at Atomico as Venture Partners.

Draper Esprit invests in and partners with German VC Earlybird

Draper Esprit, the publicly-listed VC firm based in London, is putting down further roots across Europe in cooperation with German VC Earlybird.

The “strategic partnership” sees Draper invest an initial €18 million in the latest Earlybird Fund VI (which closed this week at €175 million, above its initial target, apparently), with a commitment to invest a further €17 million or so per annum over the next four years.

The tie up will also mean the two VCs will work together beyond Draper simply being an LP in Earlybird, such as sharing deal-flow and investment resources. In addition, Draper is taking a minority stake in the management company of Earlybird Fund VI via the issuing of new Draper Esprit shares to Earlybird partners.

By putting money into Earlybird Fund VI, Draper has also indirectly acquired a minority stake in a number of startups that have already received investment from the fund. They include Shapeshift, Everoad, Movinga, Fraugster, Medidate, Xain, and Crossengage.

However, explained Draper Esprit CEO and co-founder Simon Cook in a call this morning, the partnership is really about the two firm’s leveraging the brand recognition of their broader and respective portfolios.

In aggregate, both firms say they count 100 “high growth” companies across Europe in their respective portfolios. They include the likes of Revolut, Graze, UI Path, N26, Transferwise, Ledger, Graphcore and Peak Games.

Meanwhile, in a European VC market where almost every local early-stage VC is becoming “pan-European,” the two firms met to discuss how they might work together. As the conversation progressed, it became clear that a more formal partnership fitted the ambitions of both VCs as they both attempt to have a larger presence across the continent.

In a corresponding blog post, Draper Esprit reiterates that it invests in series A, B and beyond, whereas Earlybird is focused on seed stage to series A. So, whilst there is some overlap, it won’t be hard for the two firms to divvy up deals and Cook told me Draper Esprit will share all relevant deal-flow with Earlybird and where it makes sense a partner at either firm will take the lead.

Draper Esprit is already an investor/LP in a number of other European early-stage funds, including pre-seed and seed investor Seedcamp, and Episode 1.

“We invest from offices in the U.K., Ireland, and Paris. They, from Berlin, Munich, Istanbul. We raise money via the public markets and through our EIS and VCT funds, they from traditional private LPs,” adds the VC firm.

Highland Europe closes new €463M fund to invest in growth-stage tech

Highland Europe, the European “growth-stage” technology investor, has closed a new €463 million fund, the firm’s third fund in just six years.

Targeting “globally ambitious” European software and internet-enabled businesses, the VC typically writes initial cheques of between €10 million and €30 million. It says that startups seeking investment need to demonstrate that they have reached sufficient scale “to confirm the validity of their business model.”

That may seem quite conservative by some venture standards. However, it’s an investment criteria that Highland Europe says is working, with all of its main LPs bullish enough to return for a third bite of the apple. “Significantly oversubscribed, the fund was raised in just 12 weeks and takes the firm’s assets under management to €1.1 billion,” says the VC.

On that note, Highland Europe counts 29 active companies in its portfolio, with combined revenues of €1.1 billion in 2017. In terms of exits, over the last 18 months, the firm has most recently sold stakes in luxury fashion retailer MatchesFashion.com, game developer SocialPoint and waste industry software provider AMCS Group.

Meanwhile, Berlin-based GetYourGuide, another Highland Europe-backed startup, raised $75 million in a follow-on round last year.

“There are different kinds of players in our industry and there is room for everybody,” Highland Europe partner and co-founder Fergal Mullen told me on a call last week. “Let’s be clear, we are not the early-stage people who make a bet on a concept, that’s not what we do. We need proof points, and if the proof points are there we have got 10 to 50 or 60 million available capital for each company.”

Asked how the European startup ecosystem has changed in the last few years and how it currently compares to Silicon Valley, Mullen says that although the U.S. still has a lot more capital to deploy — and is probably overcapitalized — European founders are more ambitious than ever and European companies continue to punch way above their funding weight.

“If you look at the mentality and ambition of the of young entrepreneurs in Europe nowadays, as far as I’m concerned there’s no difference between Europe and the U.S., the ambition level is there now,” he says. “The big thinking is there. The positive frame of mind. And the willingness to push the boat out, maybe fail, make mistakes, but pick up and move on. Therefore, the young entrepreneurs that we meet are looking to match up with venture capital and growth equity players who are prepared to help them achieve their full ambition and go for it. That’s a huge change and that’s a lot to do with the maturing of the market here in Europe.”

Mullen is impressed by the number of valuable companies being created in Europe and says that the quality of these companies is “exceptional.” “When I say quality I mean our companies are more capital efficient. They have to be because there’s not as much capital available so they use less capital to get to the same value as a U.S. unicorn. And they have typically twice the revenue of a U.S. unicorn on average. So they have to get to a bigger scale for a similar value.”

Longer-term, he references the pipeline of talent Europe has as another factor in its favor, pointing me to the most recent Mary Meeker “Internet Trends” report that suggests the EU is churning out many more STEM graduates than the U.S., even if China is accelerating fastest.

“This is often forgotten, [but] Europe right now is graduating hundreds of thousands more STEM graduates per year than the United States. At the PhD level, we are graduating 35,000 to 40,000 more per year. So that data point alone to me is a very compelling reason to be long on European tech for the next few decades,” says Mullen.

One thing Highland Europe won’t do is invest in a particular sector just because it is in vogue, says Mullen, after I note the VC firm has only invested in a couple of fintech companies and none you are likely to have heard of. “We don’t invest in the hype phase of any sector,” he says. “We look at fintech all the time, but our criteria are very, very strict. If you don’t have a certain amount of revenue and you’re not demonstrating real capital efficiency, we’re not going to jump in just because fintech is hot.”

Likewise, Mullen singles out AI, arguing that a lot of the concepts being pitched as AI-based aren’t true AI. “At best they might be NL, but they’re not AI. If you define it as an algorithmic-based approach with the ability of the algorithm to evolve itself and it learns and ingests more data… there is very little that is genuinely AI. That sector is very much overhyped, but it doesn’t mean we’re not looking and looking hard. At the end of the day we don’t care what it is as long as it is really working and working well.”

Challenged to name sectors that are under-hyped, the Highland Capital partner says mundane industries offer a great opportunity, citing AMCS, which operates in the waste management industry. “That’s a trillion-plus industry that is completely under invested from a tech stack standpoint.”

Adds Mullen: “At the end of the day, what’s our objective? Our objective is to deliver fantastic results to our investors and along the way we want to have a great time with wonderful entrepreneurs that we enjoy working with. If you have all of that you don’t have a job, you’ve got a vocation. It’s just an extraordinary business to be in.”

Fintech friends: Monzo partners with TransferWise for international payments

“So what’s going on here then?” I ask. “Two good friends just got even better [friends],” replies TransferWise co-founder Kristo Käärmann laughing, while Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield, who is also on the video call, smiles approvingly. “Sorry for spoiling your news,” I tell the pair, who I’m interviewing ahead of an announcement today that the two companies are working together.

The partnership, which TechCrunch outed nearly three weeks ago, will see TransferWise power international payments for the U.K. challenger bank’s 750,000 customers. It is the second new bank partnership that the fintech unicorn has unveiled this month, after announcing that it has begun working with France’s second largest bank BPCE Groupe.

TransferWise also powers international money transfer for Germany’s N26, and Estonia’s LHV. However, a previously announced partnership with the U.K.’s Starling Bank never materialised and has since been disbanded.

Asked why Monzo has chosen to work with TransferWise, Blomfield reiterates the challenger bank’s goal of becoming a “hub or control centre” for your money. This won’t necessarily all be done by Monzo, he says, “but with partner organisations who plug into this hub”. TransferWise is the first of these.

International payments has also been one of the most requested features by Monzo users since the challenger bank posted a roadmap of things it intends to “fix” over the next three months now that the switch from a pre-paid card to a full current account has been completed.

“I’ve personally been a TransferWise customer for five or six years and the service is amazing,” says Blomfield. “Compared to my old bank, it’s really, really transparent, the fees are really fair, and they’re continually working on bringing fees down and to make transfers more instantaneous. So I can’t think of a better a partner to do foreign transfers with than TransferWise”.

I ask Käärmann how different the conversation is with a challenger bank like Monzo — which arguably has nothing to lose by partnering with TransferWise and will generate affiliate revenue on each transfer — compared with larger incumbent banks who have historically generated fat margins on foreign exchange fees. He says it is similar, and usually centres on the fact that customers are already using TransferWise and that if a bank wants to put those customers first it makes sense to offer TransferWise functionality within its own app.

“When we announced the large French bank, which is clearly an incumbent — a massive incumbent — they were thinking about their customer,” he says. “That maybe does feel a little bit rare for banks to think this way, but they figured that ‘if we are going to do this, then why don’t we do it properly’. They were actually fully driven by their users and thinking about how to get the best user experience”.

The TransferWise functionality will start rolling out to Monzo users as of today and will let them send money from their current accounts to 18 of the most popular currencies, with “more being added in the near future”. The user experience will be near-identical to TransferWise’s own app, and will see transfers happen at claimed ‘mid-market’ rates in addition to TransferWise’s low and transparent fee. This means you’re told upfront exactly how much you’ll pay in fees and the amount you’ll receive in the exchanged currency.

The integration is pretty deep, too. Monzo customers who don’t have an existing TransferWise account will have an account automatically created for them when they first initiate an international money transfer. If they already have a TransferWise account, they can use their existing details to authenticate with and link their account to Monzo. This means that any international money transfers made from within Monzo will also show up in your TransferWise account and the TransferWise app.

“One of the coolest things for us, other than just working with cool people, is there’s another bank in the U.K. who is transparent with their international fees,” says Käärmann. “We’re kind of getting to the place where once there is enough banks who are as transparent in their foreign fees as Monzo is then it becomes quite untenable for everyone else to keep hiding their fees and that’s very interesting. Not just for us as companies, but more generally in terms of how banking works”.

One notable dynamic to TransferWise adding another bank partner is that the fintech giant recently launched a banking product of its own. Positioned as a companion to your existing bank account, the TransferWise “Borderless” account and debit card lets you deposit, send and spend money in multiple currencies. Acting like a local country bank account, it is primarily designed to solve the specific problem of earning, receiving and spending money abroad and TransferWise says it is not intended to be a fully fledged bank replacement — at least not yet.

“We’re pretty chilled about it,” says Blomfield when I ask him if TransferWise’s tentative entry into the bank account space was in any way a concern. “Honestly, we are not competing with TransferWise. Both of us are looking at the big high street banks, as either partners or competitors. Our customers come from Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and RBS. I think anything that increases both of our brand awareness is a really positive thing. We have 750,000 customers, which is something like 2 percent of the adult population, we’re targeting the other 98 percent who are still using the big banks. I just think there is so much headroom in this space that it would be crazy to think that we are competing with each other”.

“If we take a step back, what is the problem we are solving?” says Käärmann rhetorically. “The problem we are solving is that moving money across borders is expensive”. He then reiterates a point that TransferWise co-founder and Chairman Taavet Hinrikus has made often, which is that the company is entirely agnostic on how customers access the service. The more money moving via its infrastructure, the better, with economies of scale also meaning it has been able to lower fees on an increasing number of routes.

“For us, it doesn’t really matter if the money is in a bank account that is connected directly to TransferWise or if it is in the Borderless account,” he says. “There’s really no difference, and I know the user experience is better today if you’re banking in the U.K. with Monzo, so that’s what users should do”.

At this point I can’t resist mentioning Revolut, the digital bank startup and newly crowned unicorn that, on paper at least, competes with both TransferWise and Monzo. Revolut’s original “attack vector” (to borrow Blomfield’s phrase) was cheap foreign currency exchange coupled with a debit card for traveling. And although not yet a licensed bank, it has rolled out bank account features at a shockingly fast pace, putting it on feature parity with Monzo in a number of instances.

Rightly or wrongly, I put it to Käärmann that there is a market perception that Revolut is often the cheapest option when spending or sending money abroad, even if questions remain about how it determines prices, especially at weekends, or if the startup actually makes money on foreign exchange at all.

“When you talk about other people getting into that space, we should be happy if someone figures out how to do parts of it, some routes, better than us or faster than us or cheaper than us,” he says, somewhat diplomatically.

“I wish these things were sustainable as well. We’re super anti-subsidising, just because we think that over the long-term it doesn’t make sense to get some users paying for other users’ transfers or for some routes to pay for other routes. Progress is going to be faster if it’s clean. But, at the end of the day, if there’s a better solution, we actually endeavour to recommend that better solution. It would be nice if that better solution was also transparent and we can confidently say that they’re not just better in the next 5 minutes but that they are going to be better for the next 5 hours when you can put in your transfer. It’s only fair to the consumers — they’re not stupid — that they should go wherever is cheapest, if they need that, or somewhere that is more convenient”.

Cue Monzo’s Blomfield to caution me not to get too caught up in the London fintech echo chamber. “Most people in the U.K. have never heard of Monzo or Revolut or TransferWise,” he says, “and so our mission over the next five years is to take market share off all of the big banks, who I think are gouging their customers on things like foreign exchange. There’s so much open space in front of us because big banks just aren’t able to keep up”.

Labstep wants to fix the way science experiments are recorded and reproduced

Labstep, an app and online platform to help scientists record and reproduce experiments, has raised £1 million in new funding, including from existing investors. The company, whose team has a background in commercial R&D and academic research, including at Oxford University, is backed by Seedcamp and says it plans to use the new capital to double its team to 12, and for further product development.

This will include the launch of a marketplace for lab supplies, and is one of the ways Labstep plans to generate revenue. The startup will also add features to its app that streamline how scientists outsource elements of their research.

First conceived of in late 2013 and soft launched in 2015, Labstep has set out to digitise the lab experiment tracking and sharing process, and in turn give scientific research a major leg up.

As explained by CEO and co-founder Jake Schofield, science experiments are often recorded in an archaic way, relying on a mixture of pen and paper or entering resulting data into legacy software. Not only is this cumbersome but it also means that experiments are prone to mistakes and can be especially hard to replicate and therefore validate, either by a team working together internally or when sharing and cross-checking with the wider scientific and research community.

Enter: Labstep. The platform and app enables scientists to build libraries of experimental procedures — a bit like recipes — and then easily record progress when following a procedure in the lab, including building a timeline of the experiment. Procedures can also be shared with teams or more broadly, as well as deviated from in a transparent way. In fact, Schofield says one way to think about Labstep is as a ‘Github for lab experiments’. Procedures can be made public or private and can be optionally forked.

“Rather than following paper printouts, when actually carrying out your experimentation you can walk through these procedures step by step on a mobile device at the bench,” Schofield tells me. “Interactive features streamline and make it much easier to capture, comment, and record when you deviate from these processes”.

“Our API allows you to connect all the devices in your lab and automate the upload of results,” he explains. “Every action creates a timeline post, this automatic audit trail increases accuracy and saves the huge amounts of time normally spent writing a progress diary after the fact. You can form lab groups, like internal slack channels, that allow you to share these protocol libraries and real-time updates to see how your colleagues are progressing, this is massive as people are often collaborating and working in different geographical locations”.

In addition, the record of the steps that lead to a scientific conclusion can be attached to academic papers in the form of a URL so that other scientists can attempt to replicate the findings. This feature alone could go some way to tackling what the Labstep founder says is “a global reproducibility crisis,” estimated to cost billions per year in wasted research.

“At the point you publish your results, the competitive emphasis on keeping your research private shifts as you now want others to reproduce and validate your findings. We generate unique IDs that can be put in your publications and methods sections to link the protocols and the process that lead to these results,” he says.

As a route to monetisation, in the coming months Labstep will roll out a marketplace to make it easier to source the lab supplies needed to reproduce findings. It also plans to harness the real-time data that the Labstep app captures on how supplies in the lab are used, and Schofield says that by streamlining the ordering process, the reproducibility problem can be further addressed.

In another nod to collaboration, Labstep will also launch cloud features that allow users to outsource elements of the experimental process. I’m told that although outsourcing of research is commonly done in commercial R&D, it is used much less in academia.

Meanwhile, Labstep says it has users from over 600 universities globally including Stanford, Harvard and MIT in the U.S., and Oxford, University College London, Imperial College, King’s College and the Crick Institute in the U.K. It’s also not the only startup in this space to have got the attention of investors. Benchling, a graduate of Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, raised a $14.5 million funding round a couple of weeks ago.

Veriff raises $7.7M Series A to become the ‘Stripe for identity’

Veriff, the Estonian startup that wants to become something akin to the ‘Stripe for identity’, has raised $7.7 million in Series A funding.

Leading the round is Mosaic Ventures, joining an impressive list of backers that include Taavet Hinrikus, Ashton Kutcher, Paul Buchheit, Elad Gil, SV Angel, ACE Ventures, and Superangel. Mosaic’s Simon Levene, and Hinrikus, who co-founded and is chairman of TransferWise, have joined the Veriff board.

Founded by 23 year old Kaarel Kotkas — who is now on his third startup and has garnered quite a bit of publicity in his home country — Veriff has developed a SaaS and underlying technology to make it easy for companies, such as banks and fintechs, to easily verify a person’s identity online. In fact, Kotkas previously spent some time at TransferWise, where he solidified the idea, before founding the startup and going through Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator as part of its W18 batch.

Offered as a developer-friendly API — hence the Stripe comparison — Veriff says its solution can be implemented “in minutes”. It costs €49 per month, plus €2 per verification.

The aim, says Kotkas, is to make premium identity verification available to smaller companies and not just large corporations that can easily absorb high integration costs of incumbent offerings. However, what really sets Veriff apart from a number of competitors is its use of live video to verify you are who you say you are.

“Veriff has created an online identity verification service that is more secure than physical face to face verification and now we’re making it available to everyone,” he tells me. “We’re the first ones that understood that pictures never do them justice. It’s all about building up trust online and our service uses a unique video based approach to make sure the verification is done in real-time and voluntarily by the right person”.

Off the record, Kotkas divulged some of Veriff’s “secret sauce,” which — understandably — he wants to keep secret. The startup uses hundreds of data points collected through analysing the live video feed, including frame by frame, and from a user’s device and network. It then uses machine learning to sift through this data and, individually and in aggregate, spot patterns and anomalies that might otherwise be missed by a human.

“We know that pictures never do the justice so instead of analysing only pictures we record everything as a video and analyse frames from the video. Our fraud prevention has been built up combining device information, user behaviour, document validation & face comparison,” he says.

As a result of its video-based approach, Kotkas claims that Veriff has the highest conversion rate on the market, without compromising security. “We’ve created an online verification flow that is all about building up trust, so honest users can go through the flow conveniently, but fraudsters will drop”.

To that end, Kotkas says Veriff remains at least two steps ahead of fraudsters. Then, after an uncomfortably long pause and following prodding from me, he attempts to explain how the startup comes up with new techniques and tests them in the wild, again without disclosing too much information. “It’s a good question but a hard one to answer!” he says knowingly.

Meanwhile, Veriff says it has over 40 paying customers globally. They include financial enterprises, marketplaces, sharing economy companies and e-commerce sites. The company has its development and customer service team based in Tallinn, Estonia, and will soon move sales and marketing operations to the U.S.

Plum, the fintech chatbot that helps you save, adds theme-based investing

Plum, the fintech startup co-founded by early TransferWise employee Victor Trokoudes, is continuing its mission to help you manage your finances and save money. The AI-powered Messenger chatbot already offers savings functionality, including round-ups and regular savings, and today is launching an investment tool that lets you choose fund investments based on themes, such as ethical companies or technology.

Similar to competitors Cleo and Chip, Plum connects to your bank accounts and its algorithm then analyses your spending patterns to work out how much you can afford to set aside. It is able to identify things like income and bills, and can take a number of actions on your behalf.

This includes ‘micro-savings’ — rounding up any purchases you make — and other forms of regular saving, in which money is moved from your bank account to a segregated Plum savings account. From there you’re able to optionally put money into RateSetter, the peer-to-peer lending platform, if you wish to earn interest.

However, savings is only one pillar of Plum’s three pillar strategy. The other two are investments and spotting when you are paying too much for things like credit or utilities. Investing is getting an official launch today (having been announced in wait-list form a few months ago), and Trokoudes tells me energy switching, in partnership with green energy company Octopus, has been live for a while. If Plum detects that a user could reduce their home energy bill, it sends them a message offering to initiate the switch on their behalf.

Along with letting you invest at three different risk levels, Plum’s new investment tool provides theme-based investing. At launch these are ‘Tech’, ‘Emerging Markets’, and ‘Ethical Companies’. Other themes the platform will add in the coming months include ‘AI’, ‘Nutrition’, and ‘Robotics’. You can invest from as little as £1.

Notably, Plum is charging a monthly fee of £1 for accessing the feature, along with 0.15 percent annually on the amount you have invested. If you choose the themed fund option there is an additional fund fee. However, Trokoudes says investing via Plum is still one of the cheapest options on the market, where higher percentage annual management fees soon add up.

Plum is also disclosing its latest user numbers. In the last year, the chatbot has grown from 22,000 users to 130,000. That’s arguably decent growth for what was quite a limited product feature-wise, so it will be interesting to see the take up for Plum’s new investment tool and what effect that has on overall user numbers. As a comparison, competitor Cleo — which offers a raft of functionality but not yet investing — hit 200,000 users in April and said at the time it was growing by 3,000 users per day.

Meanwhile, Plum isn’t the only savings or PFM-type app that lets you invest based on themes Oval Money (see our previous coverage) has quietly launched an investment marketplace, starting with three funds.

The “Women at the Table” fund will allow investors to support companies that ensure that at least 20 percent of board members are women. A “Belong but Work Remote” fund promotes the growing “flexible jobs economy”. Lastly, “Generation Millennials” will track leading consumer brands that are particularly popular with millennials.

The move is said to reflect research Oval Money has conducted into the “increasing appetite younger savers have to invest in causes they believe in, rather than basing decisions only on traditional risk-return factors”.