Africa Roundup: Trump’s Nigeria ban, Paga’s acquisition and raises — Fluterwave $35M, Sendy $20M

The first month of the new-year saw Africa enter the fray of U.S. politics. The Trump administration announced last week it would halt immigration from Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation with the continent’s largest economy and leading tech sector.

The presidential proclamation stops short of a full travel ban on the country of 200 million, but suspends immigrant visas for Nigerians seeking citizenship and permanent resident status in U.S.

The latest regulations are said not to apply to non-immigrant, temporary visas for tourist, business, and medical visits.

The new policy follows the Trump’s 2017 travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. The primary reason for the latest restrictions, according to the Department of Homeland Security, was that the countries did not “meet the Department’s stronger security standards.”

Nigeria’s population is roughly 45% Muslim and the country has faced problems with terrorism, largely related to Boko Haram in its northeastern territory.

Restricting immigration to the U.S. from Nigeria, in particular, could impact commercial tech relations between the two countries.

Nigeria is the U.S.’s second largest African trading partner and the U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria.

Increasingly, the nature of the business relationship between the two countries is shifting to tech. Nigeria is steadily becoming Africa’s capital for VC, startups, rising founders and the entry of Silicon Valley companies.

Recent reporting by VC firm Partech shows Nigeria has become the number one country in Africa for venture investment.

Much of that funding is coming from American sources. The U.S. is arguably Nigeria’s strongest partner on tech and Nigeria, Silicon Valley’s chosen gateway for entering Africa.

Examples include Visa’s 2019 investment in Nigerian fintech companies Flutterwave and Interswitch and Facebook and Google’s expansion in Nigeria.

On the ban’s impact, “U.S. companies will suffer and Nigerian companies will suffer,” Bosun Tijani, CEO of Lagos based incubator CcHub, told TechCrunch .

Nigerian entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, who co-founded two tech companies with operations in the U.S. and Lagos — Flutterwave and Andela — posted his thoughts on the latest restrictions on social media.

“Just had an interesting dinner convo about this visa ban with Nigerian tech professionals in the U.S. Sad …but silver lining is all the amazing and experienced Nigerian talent in US tech companies who will now head on home,” he tweeted.

Notable market moves in African tech last month included an acquisition, global expansion and a couple big raises.

Nigerian digital payments startup Paga acquired Apposit, a software development company based in Ethiopia, for an undisclosed amount.

The Lagos based venture also announced it would launch its payment products in Mexico this year and in Ethiopia imminently, CEO Tayo Oviosu told TechCrunch

The moves come a little over a year after Paga raised a $10 million Series B round and Oviosu announced the company’s intent to expand globally, while speaking at Disrupt San Francisco.

Paga will leverage Apposit — which is U.S. incorporated but operates in Addis Ababa — to support that expansion into East Africa and Latin America.

Paga has created a multi-channel network to transfer money, pay-bills, and buy things digitally. The company has 14 million customers in Nigeria who can transfer funds from one of Paga’s 24,411 agents or through the startup’s mobile apps.

With the acquisition, Paga absorbs Apposit’s tech capabilities and team of 63 engineers.  The company will direct its boosted capabilities and total workforce of 530 to support its expansion.

On the raise side, San Francisco and Lagos-based fintech startup Flutterwave (previously mentioned) raised a $35 million Series B round and announced a partnership with Worldpay FIS for payments in Africa.

FIS also joined the round, led by US VC firms Greycroft and eVentures, with participation of Visa and African fund CRE Venture Capital .

The company will use the funding to expand capabilities to provide more solutions around the broader needs of its clients. Uber, Booking.com and Jumia are among the big names that use Flutterwave to process payments.

Last month, Africa’s logistics startup space gained another multi-million-dollar round with global backing.

Kenyan company Sendy — with an on-demand platform that connects clients to drivers and vehicles for goods delivery — raised a $20 million Series B led by Atlantica Ventures.

Toyota Tsusho Corporation, a trade and investment arm of Japanese automotive company Toyota, also joined the round.

Sendy’s raise came within six months of Nigerian trucking logistics startup Kobo360’s $20 million Series A backed by Goldman Sachs. In November, East African on-demand delivery venture Lori Systems hauled in $30 million supported by Chinese investors.

The company plans to use its raise for new developer hires, to improve the tech of its platform, and toward expansion in West Africa in 2020.

Sendy’s $20 million round also includes an R&D arrangement with Toyota Tsusho Corporation, to optimize trucks for the West African market, Sendy CEO Mesh Alloys told TechCrunch.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch

African tech around the ‘net

Trump’s travel ban could extend to Africa’s top tech country, Nigeria

The Trump administration is poised to add several African countries to a U.S. travel ban list, including Africa’s top tech hub, Nigeria.

Politico first reported the White House is considering Tanzania, Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria for new travel restrictions, to coincide with the three-year anniversary of Trump’s original executive order, that targeted majority Muslim nations.

Of the possible additions, including Nigeria could prove the most problematic to U.S. commercial relations. In addition to boasting Africa’s largest population and economy, the country of 200 million has become a magnet for VC and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley.

Why Africa, why Nigeria?

The Department of State would not comment on a TechCrunch request to confirm an extension of the travel ban to Nigeria or other African countries.

TechCrunch has an open inquiry on the matter to the National Security Council’s Senior Director for African affairs, Elizabeth Erin Walsh.

The Trump administration issued its first travel ban in 2017, which was challenged, amended, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In its current form, as Executive Order 13780, the ban places restrictions on entry for citizens of Libya, North Korea, Syria and Yemen — predominantly Muslim countries — naming “significant terrorist presence within their territory” and “deficient” immigration screening processes.

With no comment from the Trump administration, we don’t know the motivations — stated or veiled — for the possible addition of Nigeria and other African countries to the ban.

To previously named reasons countries were listed, there are issues with Nigerian visa overstays in the U.S. and Nigeria does have a terrorist problem in its northeast with Boko Haram, though no incident related to extremist group has ever hit U.S. soil.

Reading the tea leaves may reveal other motives for placing travel restrictions on Nigeria and additional African countries. In an article in The Atlantic Monday, writer Peter Beinart suggested African immigrants may be next in the Trump administration’s pattern of restricting U.S. entry from predominantly brown-skin countries.

“For several years now, Trump has trained his nativist ire on Muslims and Latinos. The travel ban suggests he’s adding a new target, just in time for the 2020 elections: Africans,” said Beinart.

He cited recent negative reference to Nigerians and Africans in conservative circles by pundits Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson and Trump’s now infamous reference to Nigeria as a “shithole” country, as reported in January 2018.

Trump Buhari Nigeria

Saul Loeb / AFP – Getty Images

That set the ominous tone for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s April 2018 White House visit, where Trump pressed Buhari publicly on persecution of Christians in Nigeria — a hot button issue with Trump’s evangelical base.

This could underlie motivations behind a possible U.S. Nigeria travel ban, according to Aubrey Hruby, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“I’ve spoken to several people in government close to the matter who’ve indicated visa restrictions being discussed are also coming from concerns that Christians are being persecuted in Nigeria and within the broader context of the administration using visa rules as tools of foreign policy,” said Hruby.

“If this is the case, and they go forward with a ban, the administration could be overlooking the deep cultural and commercial ties that exist between the U.S. and Nigeria, and how much restricting travel could disrupt them,” she added.

Africa’s tech hub

Nigeria is the U.S.’s second largest African trading partner and the U.S. is the largest foreign investor in Nigeria, according to USTR and State Department briefs.

Increasingly, the nature of the business relationship between the two countries is shifting to tech.

That’s in tandem with Nigeria steadily becoming Africa’s unofficial capital for VC, startups, rising founders and the entry of Silicon Valley companies.

By 2018 numbers, depending on the study, the country ranked first or second for tech investment on the continent. And into 2019, more of that is coming from American sources.

Goldman Sachs is a major backer of Jumia, the Nigeria headquartered e-commerce venture that became the first VC funded tech company in Africa to IPO on a major exchange, the NYSE in 2019.

Goldman also led a $20 million round last year for Nigerian trucking logistics company Kobo360.

The U.S. bank’s investment in tech companies operating in Nigeria runs parallel to those by Visa, Mastercard, and SalesForce Ventures.

Nigerian tech is also home to a growing number of founders with ties to the U.S. and startups with operations in both countries. Nigerian fintech company Flutterwave, whose clients range from Uber to Cardi B, is headquartered in San Francisco with operations in Lagos. The company maintains a developer team of Africans across both countries for its B2B payments platform that helps American companies operating in Africa get paid.

MallforAfrica — a Nigerian e-commerce company that enables partners such as Macy’s, Best Buy and Auto Parts Warehouse to sell in Africa — is led by Chris Folayan, a Nigerian who studied and worked in the U.S. The company now employs Nigerians in Lagos and Americans at its Portland processing plant.

Africa’s leading VOD startup, iROKOtv maintains a New York office that lends to production of the Nigerian (aka Nollywood) content it creates and streams globally.

Andela, a tech-talent accelerator with over a $180 million in VC, was co-founded by American Jeremy Johnson and Nigerian entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji. The company has offices in New York and Lagos and employs over 1000 engineers.

Over the last five years, Silicon Valley’s ties to Africa and Nigeria have grown. There are a number of Nigerians working in senior positions in the Bay Area, such as Ime Archibong at Facebook — the U.S. company that opened an innovation lab in Nigeria in 2018, called NG_Hub.

Possible implications

Adding Nigeria to the U.S. travel ban would be a mistake for tech development of both countries, believes Bosun Tijani, CEO of Lagos based CcHub, now Africa’s largest innovation incubator.

“Nigeria’s a strategic country for well established companies, such as Google and Facebook. Twitter’s founder visited just a few months ago,” Tijani said, referring to Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani1

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani

On the impact of a full travel ban, “The implications would be serious for both sides. U.S. companies will suffer and Nigerian companies will suffer,” said Tijani.

He also referenced the increasing level of tech capacity fostering between the the two countries.

“With the importance of Nigeria to U.S. tech companies and the pool of talent that exists in Nigeria, there’s too much at stake to mess around with some visa ban. The embassies already do their work to vet people properly,” he said.

Adding Nigeria to the travel ban would adversely impact the work CcHub does with its American partners, which include Facebook and Google. “That’s the reason I come to the U.S. I’ve never been to the country on holiday, it’s always for business with them,” said Tijani.

Another effect of restricting entry of Nigerians into the U.S. could be to turn more of Nigeria’s techies away from U.S. partnerships and toward China. The country has been pivoting its strategic relationship with Africa to the continent’s tech scene.

In the last two quarters of 2019, more than 15 Chinese actors invested over $240 million in VC in Africa. More than $210 million of that was for startups in Nigeria.

Dear Sophie: I live in Europe but want to move my startup to the US

“Dear Sophie” is a collaborative forum hosted by Extra Crunch and curated by Sophie Alcorn, who is certified as a specialist attorney in immigration and nationality law by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Sophie is the founder of Alcorn Immigration Law, the fastest-growing immigration law firm in Silicon Valley and 2019 Global Law Experts Awards’ “Law Firm of the Year in California for Entrepreneur Immigration Services.”

Extra Crunch subscribers enjoy full access to “Dear Sophie” — use promo code ALCORN to purchase a one or two-year subscription for 50% off.


Dear Sophie: I live in Germany, but I am a Hungarian citizen. I’m worried that I won’t qualify for an O-1A visa because I’m definitely not famous or a genius. I want to move my startup to America so we can access investors and the North American market. Because I am Hungarian and not German, I don’t qualify for an E-2 investor visa. Is there any way I can pull off moving to the States and growing my company over the next two to three years? 

— Hopeful in Hamburg

Dear Hopeful: You are not alone! If your dream is to move to the United States, you can definitely make it happen through your existing company in Germany. It’s going to take some basic planning and then a little bit of time to lay the groundwork. I’ll walk you through the basic requirements so that you can get an idea of what’s ahead of you, but if you need individual specific legal advice, you should ask an attorney. For now, I hope this helps.

The first thing the United States government will want to see is that you have a registered company here. It could be any type of company, even an LLC in California. However, startup investors usually prefer a Delaware C corporation. If you don’t yet have a company registered in Germany because you are very early stage, then you could also consider having the Delaware corporation be the parent company of any future legal entities in Europe. Talk to a corporate attorney about the right choice for you.

From the immigration perspective, all of this is necessary because of the main requirements of the L-1A visa for intracompany transferees. These requirements demand that a U.S. and foreign company have a qualifying relationship for an employee transfer, such as a parent/subsidiary, a branch or an affiliation.

Impossible adds ‘ground pork’ and ‘sausages’ to its lineup of plant-based foods

Impossible Foods made huge waves in the food industry when it came up with a way of isolating and using “heme” molecules from plants to mimic the blood found in animal meat (also comprised of heme), bringing a new depth of flavor to its vegetarian burger.

This week at CES, the company is presenting the next act in its mission to get the average consumer to switch to more sustainable, plant-based proteins: it unveiled its version of pork — specifically ground pork, which will be sold as a basic building block for cooking as well as in sausage form. It’s a critical step, given that pork is the most-eaten animal product in the world.

Impossible has set up shop in CES’s outdoor area, situated near a line of food trucks, and it will be cooking food for whoever wants to come by. (I tasted a selection of items made from the new product — a steamed bun, a meatball, some noodles and a lettuce wrap — and the resemblance is uncanny, and not bad at all.) And after today, the new product will be making its way first to selected Burger King restaurants in the US before appearing elsewhere.

It may sound a little far-fetched to see a food startup exhibiting and launching new products at a consumer electronics show, attended by 200,000 visitors who will likely by outnumbered by the number of TVs, computers, phones, and other electronic devices on display. Indeed, Impossible is the only food exhibitor this year.

But if you ask Pat Brown, the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (pictured right, at the sunny CES stand in the cold wearing a hat), the company is in precisely the right place.

“To me it’s very natural to be at CES,” he said in an interview this week at the show. “The food system is the most important technology on earth. It is absolutely a technology, and an incredibly important one, even if it doesn’t get recognised as such. The use of animals as a food technology is the most destructive on earth. And when Impossible was founded, it was to address that issue. We recognised it as a technology problem.”

That is also how Impossible has positioned itself as a startup. Its emergence (it was founded 2011) dovetailed with an interesting shift in the world of tech. The number of startups were booming, fuelled by VC money and a boom in smartphones and broadband. At the same time, we were starting to see a new kind of startup emerging built on technology but disrupting a wide range of areas not traditionally associated with technology. Technology VCs, looking for more opportunities (and needing to invest increasingly larger funds), were opening themselves up to consider more of the latter opportunities.

Impossible has seized the moment. It has raised around $777 million to date from a list of investors more commonly associated with tech companies — they include Khosla, Temasek, Horizons Ventures, GV, and a host of celebrities — and Impossible is now estimated to be valued at around $4 billion. Brown told me it is currently more than doubling revenues annually.  

With his roots in academia, the idea of Brown (who has also done groundbreaking work in HIV research) founding and running a business is perhaps as left-field a development as a food company making the leap from commodity or packaged good business to tech. Before Impossible, Brown said that he had “zero interest” in becoming an entrepreneur: the bug that has bitten so many others at Stanford (where he was working prior to founding Impossible) had not bitten him.

“I had an awesome job where I followed my curiosity, working on problems that I found interesting and important with great colleagues,” he said.

That changed when he began to realise the scale of the problem resulting from the meat industry, which has led to a well-catalogued list of health, economic and environmental impacts (including increased greenhouse gas emissions and the removal of natural ecosystems to make way for farming land. “It is the most important and consequential issue for the future of the world, and so the solution has to be market-based,” he said. “The only way we can replace themes that are this destructive is by coming up with a better technology and competing.”

Pork is a necessary step in that strategy to compete. America, it seems, is all about beef and chicken when it comes to eating animals. But pigs and pork take the cake when you consider meat consumption globally, accounting for 38% of all meat production, with 47 pigs killed on average every second of every day. Asia, and specifically China, figure strongly in that demand. Consumption of pork in China has increased 140% since 1990, Impossible notes.

Pigs’ collective footprint in the world is also huge: there are 1.44 billion of them, and their collective biomass totals 175 kg, twice as much as the biomass of all wild terrestrial vertebrates, Impossible says.

Whether Impossible’s version of pork will be enough or just an incremental step is another question. Ground meat is not the same as creating structured proteins that mimic the whole-cuts that are common (probably more common) when it comes to how pork is typically cooked (ditto for chicken and beef and other meats).

That might likely require more capital and time to develop.

For now, Impossible is focused on building out its business on its own steam: it’s not entertaining any thoughts of selling up, or even of licensing out its IP for isolating and using soy leghemoglobin — the essential “blood” that sets its veggie proteins apart from other things on the market. (I think of licensing out that IP, as the equivalent of how a tech company might white label or create APIs for third parties to integrate its cool stuff into their services.)

That means there will be inevitable questions down the line about how Impossible will capitalise to meet demand for its products. Brown said that for now there are no plans for IPOs or to raise more externally, but pointed out that it would have no problem doing either.

Indeed, the company has built up an impressive bench of executives and other talent to meet those future scenarios. Earlier this year, Impossible hired Dennis Woodside — the former Dropbox, Google and Motorola star– as its first president. And its CFO, David Lee, joined from Zynga back in 2015, with a stint also in the mass-market food industry, having been at Del Monte prior to that.

Lee told me that the company has essentially been running itself as a public company internally in preparation for a time when it might follow in the footsteps of its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, and go public.

“From a tech standpoint I’m absolutely confident that we can outperform what we get from animals in affordability, nutrition and deliciousness,” said Brown. “This entire industry is most destructive by far and has major responsibility in terms of climate and biodiversity, but it going to be history and we are going to replace it.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

Into Africa: tech leaders weigh in on Jack Dorsey’s planned move to the continent

It’s not every day that the CEO of a large Silicon Valley tech company decides to relocate to a different part of the world in order to learn more about it — particularly a frequently maligned and often overlooked by big-business part.

But Jack Dorsey, the American tech entrepreneur who co-founded and leads not one, but two publicly listed companies (Twitter and Square) is not your typical CEO. Dressed down, bearded, often wearing a wooly hat and speaking in a slow, quiet voice, you might even call Dorsey the anti-CEO. He eschews many of the stereotypical trappings of the executive life and mannerisms in favor of taking silent retreats and traveling to countries like Burma.

In November 2019, Dorsey’s itchy feet took him to Africa, where he visited Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia on a listening tour. He had meetings at incubators in Lagos and Addis Ababa; and talked to a number of African tech-leaders, including Tayo Oviosu, the CEO of Nigerian payments startup Paga; and Yeli Bademosi, the director of Binance Labs.

And before he departed back for the US, he did something more: he announced that he would return in 2020 to live somewhere on the continent for up to six months.

“Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020,” he Tweeted from Ethiopia.

Why Africa?

And where? And when? If you have ever spoken to Dorsey — or more likely read an interview with him — you’ll note that the he can be somewhat oblique. It’s rare that he gives straight answers to straight questions, even if he always responds with something.

So when spokespeople from both Twitter and Square declined to comment on what his plans will be and if they will relate to those two companies, it might be just as likely that they don’t want to disclose anything as they don’t actually know.

But one thing is clear: Africa’s 54 countries and 1.2 billion people is one of the last blue oceans for global tech growth (one that not only Dorsey has identified).

To that end, TechCrunch talked to several people from Africa’s tech world to get their thoughts on what he could do, and what bears remembering as the world follows Dorsey’s spotlight.

The state of the market

When you look at year-over-year expansion in VC investment in the region, startup formation and incubators, the African continent is one of the fastest-growing technology markets in the world — even if today, by monetary value, it’s tiny by Shenzhen or Silicon Valley standards.

Three of the top destination countries for startup investment — Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — collectively surpassed $1 billion in investment for the first time in 2018, with fintech businesses currently receiving the bulk of the capital and dealflow, according to Partech and WeeTracker stats.

By most accounts, Dorsey’s first foot forward last November was to make himself a student of the continent’s innovation scene — but specifically as it relates to fintech (and by association, his affiliation with Square and latterly Bitcoin).

“It was more them listening than anything else. Not just Jack, but the other senior members of his team,” CcHub’s CEO Bosun Tijani said of Dorsey’s meetings at the incubator.

After acquiring Kenya’s iHub, CcHub is the largest incubator in Africa. Other members of Dorsey’s team who joined him there included Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal and Product Lead Kayvon Beykpour.

“[Dorsey] said the main reason [he was in Ethiopia and Africa] was to listen and to learn what’s going on in the region,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma .

Jack Dorsey CcHub Bosun Tijani Damilola Teidi

Dorsey with CcHub’s Bosun Tijani and Damilola Teidi

Over recent years, Nigeria has become Africa’s leader in startup formation, VC, and the entry of big tech players, such as Facebook — which opened an incubator in Lagos in 2018.

Since 2014, the country of 200 million has held the dual distinction as Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy. This makes it a compelling market for fintech and social media apps.

Twitter in Africa, according to sources, was less of a topic during Jack Dorsey’s meetings with founders and techies. This makes some sense. The service has lower penetration in the region estimated at 7.46%, higher than Instagram but lower than Pinterest — and that essentially means that the business opportunities there are fewer, since the majority of Twitter’s revenues comes from advertising.

“The only concrete thing in all this communication…is he seems to be interested in Bitcoin,” said Tijani.

Markos Lemma had the same takeaway after talking with Dorsey. “I think he’s specifically interested in Bitcoin,” he said.

Crypto

Dorsey’s crypto focus in Africa isn’t such a surprise, given his bullish stance on Bitcoin and blockchain-based technology.

In October, he invested $10 million in CoinList, a startup that facilities and manages token sales. And rather than create its own cryptocurrency, like Facebook’s Libra experiment, Square is using Bitcoin as the basis for its digital-currency strategy. The company added Bitcoin trades to CashApp, its P2P payment and investment product, in 2018 and its Square Crypto effort announced this year aims to “support and promote Bitcoin” through open source development.

A recent interview with Australia’s Financial Review could offer further insight into Dorsey’s crypto Africa vision.

“I think the internet will have a native currency and anything we can do to make that happen we’ll do,” he said in reference to Square’s moves.

“In the long term it will help us be more and more like an internet company where we can launch a product…and the whole world can use it, instead of having to go from market to market, to bank to bank to bank and from regulatory body to regulatory body.”

Square Bitcoin

What Dorsey is describing, in part, is the primary use case for cryptocurrency in Africa — where there remain all kinds of inefficiencies around moving money. The continent’s people pay the highest remittance costs in the world largely due to fragmented (and often inadequate) financial infrastructure and expensive cross-border transaction costs.

By several estimates, Africa is also home to the largest share of the world’s banked and underbanked consumer and SME populations.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

There are hundreds of payments startups across the region looking to move that needle by getting these people on the financial map — and more opportunistically, getting them to use their products.

To be fair, the adoption of digital finance products, such as M-Pesa in Kenya, have succeeded in reaching tens of millions.

A characteristic of successful African fintech products, however, is that their use has been geographically segregated, with few apps able to scale widely across borders. Some of that relates to vastly different regulatory structures and the difficulty in shaping product-market-fit from country to country.

Cryptocurrency’s potential to bypass inefficient or deficient finance structures has been getting attention in Africa.

The last two years saw several ICOs on the continent. One of the largest coin offerings ($7 million) was in 2018 by SureRemit — a startup that launched a crypto-token aimed at Africa’s incoming and intra-country remittance markets.

SureRemit’s CEO, Adeoye Ojo, sees the relevance and timing of Jack Dorsey’s interest in cryptocurrencies on the continent.

“Right now a lot of people and governments in Africa are aware of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, compared to two years ago, and asking questions about how this can be leveraged; what kind of products can we build around this,” Ojo told TechCrunch.

Bitcoin, according to Ojo, is finding utility on the continent. “It has helped people with value transfer significantly. A lot of businesses trying to make payments outside Nigeria…frustrated with access to forex or access to USD, are leveraging Bitcoin to make payments directly to vendors or suppliers in Asia and Europe,” he said.

On business motivations for Dorsey’s move to Africa, “I think he is definitely looking at the opportunity to get more people to adopt payments on Bitcoin, buying Bitcoin with Square here,” Ojo said — based on the collective information he’s followed re Dorsey’s crypto motives and what emerged from Jack’s recent trip. 

Square has yet to launch any services in Africa, but if there is a business purpose to Dorsey’s residency, one could be considering how and if the company has scope for building out services in the region, specifically one based around cryptocurrency.

SureRemit CEO Adeoye Ojo believes Dorsey could also look to establish a unique African Bitcoin exchange.

But Ojo underscored the specific hurdles to cryptocurrency adoption on the continent. The first is regulation. Regulatory reviews on digital-currency use are ongoing in major economies Nigeria and Kenya. South Africa’s Central Bank is considering rules that would limit use of cryptocurrencies for foreign transfers.

“Even if the application for crypto works here, if the regulations that come forward don’t support it, it won’t happen,” said Ojo.

As with other parts of the world, Africa also faces a trust issue on digital currency adoption, he added, due to Bitcoin’s implication in several scams — most notably to defraud millions of Nigerians in the Mavrodi Mundial Moneybox (MMM) ponzi scheme.

“For many Nigerians, their first introduction to Bitcoin was this MMM scam…People have been adopting  mobile money in Africa, but it’s gonna take a bit of market education for them to understand using Bitcoin isn’t just some scam,” he said.

Advice for Dorsey

On where Dorsey should spend time on his return, Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge, thinks Kenya is a must, given its lead as one of the top countries in the world for mobile-money adoption.

“Coming to live in the ecosystem is a good thing…it’s the best way to really understand…and get the nuances of business in Africa,” he said.

Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge

Njoroge, whose Nairobi-based fintech company processes payments in 35 African countries, also suggested Dorsey understand any tech play in Africa requires a long-game commitment, given the infrastructure challenges in the ecosystem compared to others.

On that topic, Ice Addis co-founder Markos Lemma suggested Dorsey provide founders advice on operating around and influencing tech-regulation. “He’s had a lot experience navigating the U.S. and other markets with Twitter and Square. I don’t know any entrepreneur in Ethiopia or other African markets who has that experience navigating and negotiating regulations,” he said.

For all the likelihood Dorsey’s pending move could be motivated by Square and Bitcoin, three of the founders interviewed by TechCrunch — Bosun Tijani, Ken Njoroge, and Markos Lemma — underscored the rise of Twitter in Africa’s civic and political spheres.

Square doesn’t operate in Africa but Twitter is the fourth most used social media app on the continent and sells ads in Africa through partner, Ad Dynamo, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed.

Social Media Stats 2019 Africa“Twitter is quite powerful in Nigeria,” CcHub’s CEO said of the social media platform in the country, which has been plagued by theft of state resources in the hundreds of billions.

“It’s not just a social media platform for Nigeria. It’s changing the dynamics between people with power and those that they’re meant to serve,” Tijani explained.

Twitter (along with Facebook) has also been implicated in Africa’s first (notable) social media political interference campaigns.

“There’s a lot of hate speech and misinformation that’s been showing up on social media,” said Ice Addis’ Markos Lemma. “With [Ethiopia’s] 2020 elections on the horizon, I think it would be important for him to address how Twitter can mitigate that risk.”

Dorsey has faced flak from some analysts and Twitter board members for his planned move outside the U.S., given risks associated with Twitter and the upcoming American election.

So Dorsey’s 2020 Africa move could certainly uncover opportunities for cryptocurrency and Square on the continent.

It could also become a reminder that wherever he travels so too do the complications of his social media company back home.

Jiji raises $21M for its Africa online classifieds business

Pan-African digital classifieds company Jiji has raised $21 million in Series C and C-1 financing from six investors, led by Knuru Capital.

The Nigeria based venture, co-founded by Ukrainian entrepreneur Vladimir Mnogoletniy, has an East to West presence that includes Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.

Buyers and sellers in those markets use Jiji to transact purchases from real estate to car sales.

“We are the largest marketplace in Africa where people can sell pretty much anything…We are like a combination of eBay and Craigslist for Africa,” Mnogoletniy told TechCrunch on a call.

The classifieds site has two million listings on its Africa platforms and hit eight million unique monthly users in 2018, per company stats.

Jiji sees an addressable market of 400 million people across its operating countries, according to Mnogoletniy. The venture bought up one of its competitors in April this year, when it acquired the assets of Naspers owned online marketplace OLX in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Jiji’s top three categories for revenues and listings (in order) are vehicle sales, real estate, and electronics sales (namely mobile phones).

With the recent funding, the company’s total capital raised from 2014 to 2019 comes to $50 million. Knuru Capital CEO Alain Dib confirmed the Abu Dhabi based fund’s lead on Jiji’s most recent round.

Jiji plans to use the latest investment toward initiatives to increase the overall number of buyers, sellers and transactions on its site. The company will also upgrade the platform to create more listings and faster matching in the area of real-estate, according to Mnogoletniy.

For the moment, Jiji doesn’t have plans for country expansion or company purchases. “Maybe at some point we will consider more acquisitions, but for the time being we’d like to focus on those five markets,” Mnogoletniy said — referring to Jiji’s existing African country presence.

To ensure the quality of listings, particularly in real-estate, Jiji employs an automated and manual verification process. “We were able to eliminate a high-percentage of fraud listings and estimate fraud listings at less than 1%,” said Mnogoletniy.

He recognized the challenge of online scams originating in Nigeria. “We take data protection very seriously. We have a data-control officer just to do the data-protection verification.”

With the large consumer base and volume of transactional activity on its platform, Jiji could layer on services, such as finance and payments.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions about adding segments other than our main business. We decided that for the next three to five years, we should be laser focused on our core business — to be the largest marketplace in Africa for buying and selling to over 400 million people,” Mnogoletniy said.

The company faces an improving commercial environment for its goals, with Africa registering some of the fastest growth in the world for smartphone adoption and internet penetration.

Jiji also faces competitors in Africa’s growing online classifieds space.

Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia, which listed in April in an NYSE IPO, operates its Jumia Deals digtial marketplace site in multiple African countries.

Swiss owned Ringier Africa has classified services and business content sites in eight French and English speaking countries. On car sales, Nigerian startup Cars45 has created an online marketplace for pricing, rating, and selling used-autos. 

Adding to the trend of foreign backed ventures entering Africa’s internet business space, Chinese owned Opera launched an online buy/sell site, OList, last month connected its African payment app, OPay.

eBay operates a partnership with MallforAfrica for limited goods sales from Africa to the U.S., but hasn’t gone live yet on the continent.

On outpacing rival in its markets, Jiji’s co-founder Vladimir Mnogoletniy touts the company’s total focus on the classifieds business, market experience, and capital as advantages.

“We’ve spent five years and raised $50 million to build Jiji to where it is today. It would take $50 to $100 million for these others to have a chance at building a similar business,” he said.

No one knows how effective digital therapies are, but a new tool from Elektra Labs aims to change that

Depending on which study you believe, the wearable and digital health market could be worth anywhere from $30 billion to nearly $90 billion in the next six years.

If the numbers around the size of the market are a moving target, just think about how to gauge the validity and efficacy of the products that are behind all of those billions of dollars in spending.

Andy Coravos, the co-founder of Elektra Labs, certainly has.

Coravos, whose parents were a dentist and a nurse practitioner, has been thinking about healthcare for a long time. After a stint in private equity and consulting, she took a coding bootcamp and returned to the world she was raised in by taking an internship with the digital therapeutics company, Akili Interactive.

Coravos always thought she wanted to be in healthcare, but there was one thing holding her back, she says. “I’m really bad with blood.”

That’s why digital therapeutics made sense. The stint at Akili led to a position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as an entrepreneur in residence, which led to the creation of Elektra Labs roughly two years ago.

Now the company is launching Atlas, which aims to catalog the biometric monitoring technologies that are flooding the consumer health market.

These monitoring technologies, and the applications layered on top of them, have profound implications for consumer health, but there’s been no single place to gauge how effective they are, or whether the suggestions they’re making about how their tools can be used are even valid. Atlas and Elektra are out to change that. 

The FDA has been accelerating its clearances for software-driven products like the atrial fibrillation detection algorithm on the Apple Watch and the ActiGraph activity monitors. And big pharma companies like Roche, Pfizer and Novartis have been investing in these technologies to collect digital biomarker data and improve clinical trials.

Connected technologies could provide better care, but the technologies aren’t without risks. Specifically the accuracy of data and the potential for bias inherent in algorithms which were created using flawed datasets mean that there’s a lot of oversight that still needs to be done, and consumers and pharmaceutical companies need to have a source of easily accessible data about the industry.

”The increase in FDA clearances for digital health products coupled with heavy investment in technology has led to accelerated adoption of connected tools in both clinical trials and routine care. However, this adoption has not come without controversy,” said Coravos, co-founder and CEO of Elektra Labs, in a statement. “During my time as an Entrepreneur in Residence in the FDA’s Digital Health Unit, it became clear to me that like pharmacies which review, prepare, and dispense drug components, our healthcare system needs infrastructure to review, prepare, and dispense connected technologies components.

The analogy to a pharmacy isn’t an exact fit, because Elektra Labs currently doesn’t prepare or dispense any of the treatments that it reviews. But Atlas is clearly the first pillar that the digital therapeutics industry needs as it looks to supplant pharmaceuticals as treatments for some of the largest and most expensive chronic conditions (like diabetes).

Coravos and here team interviewed more than 300 professionals as they built the Atlas toolkit for pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare stakeholders seeking a one-stop-shop for all of their digital healthcare data needs. Like a drug label, or nutrition label, Atlas publishes labels that highlight issues around the usability, validation, utility, security and data governance of a product.

In an article in Quartz earlier this year, Coravos made her pitch for Elektra Labs and the types of things it would monitor for the nascent digital therapeutics industry. It includes the ability to handle adverse events involving digital therapies by providing a single source where problems could be reported; a basic description for consumers of how the products work; an assessment of who should actually receive digital therapies, based on the assessment of how well certain digital products perform with certain users; a description of a digital therapy’s provenance and how it was developed; a database of the potential risks associated with the product; and a record of the product’s security and privacy features.

As the projections on market size show, the problem isn’t going to get any smaller. As Google’s recent acquisition bid for FitBit and the company’s reported partnership with Ascension on “Project Nightingale” to collect and digitize more patient data shows, the intersection of technology and healthcare is a huge opportunity for technology companies.

“Google is investing more. Apple is investing more… More and more of these devices are getting FDA cleared and they’re becoming not just wellness tools but healthcare tools,” says Coravos of the explosion of digital devices pitching potential health and wellness benefits.

Elektra Labs is already working with undisclosed pharmaceutical companies to map out the digital therapeutic environment and identify companies that might be appropriate partners for clinical trials or acquisition targets in the digital market.

“The FDA is thinking about these digital technologies, but there were a lot of gaps,” says Coravos. And those gaps are what Elektra Labs is designed to fill. 

At its core, the company is developing a catalog of the digital biomarkers that modern sensing technologies can track and how effective different products are at providing those measurements. The company is also on the lookout for peer-reviewed published research or any clinical trial data about how effective various digital products are.

Backing Coravos and her vision for the digital pharmacy of the future are venture capital investors including Maverick Ventures, Arkitekt Ventures, Boost VC, Founder Collective, Lux Capital, SV Angel, and Village Global.

Alongside several angel investors, including the founders and chief executives from companies including: PillPack, Flatiron Health, National Vision, Shippo, Revel and Verge Genomics, the venture investors pitched in for a total of $2.9 million in seed funding for Coravos’ latest venture.

“Timing seems right for what Elektra is building,” wrote Brandon Reeves, an investor at Lux Capital, which was . one of the first institutional investors in the company. “We have seen the zeitgeist around privacy data in applications on mobile phones and now starting to have the convo in the public domain about our most sensitive data (health).” 

If the validation of efficacy is one key tenet of the Atlas platform, then security is the other big emphasis of the company’s digital therapeutic assessment.  Indeed, Coravos believes that the two go hand-in-hand. As privacy issues proliferate across the internet, Coravos believes that the same troubles are exponentially compounded by internet-connected devices that are monitoring the most sensitive information that a person has — their own health records.

In an article for Wired, Koravos wrote:

Our healthcare system has strong protections for patients’ biospecimens, like blood or genomic data, but what about our digital specimens? Due to an increase in biometric surveillance from digital tools—which can recognize our face, gait, speech, and behavioral patterns—data rights and governance become critical. Terms of service that gain user consent one time, upon sign-up, are no longer sufficient. We need better social contracts that have informed consent baked into the products themselves and can be adjusted as user preferences change over time.

We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream. Inspired by the Hippocratic Oath—a symbolic promise to provide care in the best interest of patients—a number of security researchers have drafted a new version for Connected Medical Devices.

With more effective regulations, increased commercial activity, and strong governance, software-driven medical products are poised to change healthcare delivery. At this rate, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement—or even replace—drugs sooner than we think.

Former Stitch Fix COO Julie Bornstein is rewriting the e-commerce playbook

More than two years after Julie Bornstein–Stitch Fix’s former chief operating officer–mysteriously left the subscription-based personal styling service only months before its initial public offering, she’s taking the wraps off her first independent venture.

Shortly after departing Stitch Fix, Bornstein began building The Yes, an AI-powered shopping platform expected to launch in the first half of 2020. She’s teamed up with The Yes co-founder and chief technology officer Amit Aggarwal, who’s held high-level engineering roles at BloomReach and Groupon, and most recently, served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at Bain Capital Ventures, to “rewrite the architecture of e-commerce.”

“This is an idea I’ve been thinking about since I was 10 and spending my weekends at the mall,” Bornstein, whose resume includes chief marketing officer & chief digital officer at Sephora, vice president of e-commerce at Urban Outfitters, VP of e-commerce at Nordstrom and director of business development at Starbucks, tells TechCrunch. “All the companies I have worked at were very much leading in this direction.”

Coming out of stealth today, the team at The Yes is readying a beta mode to better understand and refine their product. Bornstein and Aggarwal have raised $30 million in venture capital funding to date across two financings. The first, a seed round, was co-led by Forerunner Ventures’ Kirsten Green and NEA’s Tony Florence. The Series A was led by True Ventures’ Jon Callaghan with participation from existing investors. Bornstein declined to disclose the company’s valuation.

“AI and machine learning already dominate in many verticals, but e-commerce is still open for a player to have a meaningful impact,” Callaghan said in a statement. “Amit is leading a team to build deep neural networks that legacy systems cannot achieve.”

Bornstein and Aggarwal withheld many details about the business during our conversation. Rather, the pair said the product will speak for itself when it launches next year. In addition to being an AI-powered shopping platform, Bornstein did say The Yes is working directly with brands and “creating a new consumer shopping experience that helps address the issue of overwhelm in shopping today.”

As for why she decided to leave Stitch Fix just ahead of its $120 million IPO, Bornstein said she had an epiphany.

“I realized that technology had changed so much, meanwhile … the whole framework underlying e-commerce had remained the same since the late 90s’ when I helped build Nordstrom.com,” she said. “If you could rebuild the underlying architecture and use today’s technology, you could actually bring to life an entirely new consumer experience for shopping.”

The Yes, headquartered in Silicon Valley and New York City, has also brought on Lisa Green, the former head of industry, fashion and luxury at Google, as its senior vice president of partnerships, and Taylor Tomasi Hill, whose had stints at Moda Operandi and FortyFiveTen, as its creative director. Other investors in the business include Comcast Ventures and Bain Capital Ventures

Why venture capital firms need culture experts

When Susan Fowler’s 2017 blog post shined a light on Uber’s raucous culture, outlining rampant harassment and sexism, a debate erupted. What role do the deep-pocketed investors behind the company, those who allowed it to scale to monstrous proportions, have in developing and nurturing its culture? Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists themselves wondered aloud, how involved should a venture fund be in early-stage recruiting processes and ensuring a safe environment for employees? If a culture is bad, unsafe, damaging, is it the VC’s fault?

Late-stage venture funds, for the most part, miss the opportunity to deeply impact their portfolio companies’ cultures. When they invest, typically large sums of capital in companies with hundreds of employees and multiple offices, the company’s culture is formed and, as Uber and others have proven, rebuilding culture a decade in is no easy challenge. Early-stage funds, however, the people that write the very first check in startups, have a front-row seat to decisions crucial to defining how a company operates and treats its employees in the long term. These people, if they care to, have the power to help determine key hires and establish company values, norms and behaviors from the get-go.

This week, San Francisco-based early-stage fund True Ventures hired its first-ever vice president of culture, a move that suggests VCs are taking concrete steps toward further involving themselves in the company-building process from a D&I and hiring perspective. Madeline Kolbe Saltzman joins the firm, which raised $635 million across two new funds last year, from Handshake, where she was the VP of people and talent.

“There’s a responsibility to guide the company and the founder to being the best they can be, and that involves paying attention to who you’re hiring and how people are being treated,” Saltzman tells TechCrunch. “If we can come in and establish inclusive norms, my hope is that our companies will scale inclusively as well.”

Most venture capitalists are in regular communication with active investments. Early-stage investors, particularly, are very involved with building businesses, facilitating hires and scaling. But as they seek to decrease cash-burn or find product-market fit, VCs are not often very concerned with issues of diversity and inclusion, something that’s became increasingly important as companies are finally being held accountable for the diversity of their workforces.