Zwift, which turns indoor cycling workouts into multiplayer games, raises $120M

Fitness and gaming have been two of the most popular categories of apps for years, and now a startup founded out of London that has combined the two in a unique way has picked up a big round of funding to capitalise on that. Zwift, an interactive platform for people to turn indoor cycling workouts into massive, multi-participant races, social rides, and immersive explorations of new domains, has raised $120 million — money that its co-founder and CEO, Eric Min, said will be used to expand to more training categories (it’s first steps outside of cycling have been into running), and to add esports tournaments.

The funding — led by Highland Europe, with Europe’s True (not to be confused with True Ventures), Causeway Media and Novator participating — comes on the heels of very rapid growth for Zwift .

The startup now has over 1 million registered accounts (it doesn’t disclose active users), up from a mere 200,000 two years ago, with users ranging from amateur cycling enthusiasts, people who cycle as part of fitness regimes, and professional athletes who use it to supplement IRL global training schedules.

“More than one-third of the peloton in this year’s Tour de France” — despite all its controversies, still the gold standard for road races — “are users of Zwift,” Min told me. There are 200 Facebook groups built around Zwift communities, with people using them to organise rides and sometimes even to meet up in person afterwards at cafes, just as they might in actual outdoor rides. With customers in 100 countries, Min told me that there are on average 300 rides a day happening on Zwift.

The company isn’t disclosing its valuation, but Min said that the startup is “approaching unicorn status” on account of its growth and big ambitions and it appears to be more than $500 million with “a very small dilution” — a big jump on the $180 million Pitchbook estimated for its valuation in 2016 (it’s raised around $166 million to date).

Min believes that the upswing in e-sports could see the format getting ever-more mainstream acceptance. “Our goal is to bring Zwift to the Olympics,” he told me confidently.

Zwift is swiftly addressing two different shortcomings of two common home pastimes. One of the problems with exercising at home — and specifically training in cycling as a first effort — is that it might get a little boring, and one of the problems with playing too many video games is that they contribute to the tendency we have in our modern world to be too sedentary.

The service involves you providing your own bike, which you link up with a Zwift trainer (a rack-like piece of equipment that turns a bike into a stationary bike for indoor training), which in turn picks up your stats and adjusts tension and so on based on the course that you are riding. You cycle in front of a TV typically to get the immersive effect, linked up to a Mac, Windows or iOS App (it’s also on Apple TV). You start with a free trial before moving to a monthly fee of $15 (or $10 if you are currently on a trial or already subscribe: the higher fee was introduced last month).

There are no plans at the moment for VR headsets or other head-based wearables because so far they have proven to be too bulky to be usable in the physical environment of sometimes-gruelling cycling, Min said. And for now, you also don’t use spinners or other stationary cycling apparatuses because these can’t provide the right kind of ‘real-world’ riding feel, he said. But this might evolve as Zwift partners with more third parties (and with companies like Peloton a big hit with home fitness enthusiasts, you can see how that might evolve).

In all of its sports and sport ambitions, Zwift is bringing not just basic tension and gaming dynamics to the table: it’s using some interesting algorithms to help train its users, and figure out what might be the best logical step for them in terms of increasing or decreasing difficulty while measuring all other cycling stats. Min says this all starts with getting an accurate weight for each user.

Cycling accounts for 98 percent of the company’s business at the moment, and running is just taking off. For runners, people use running treadmills, and that is the template the company wants to follow, eventually including rowing machines, step machines, and more. Sometimes the locations are actual places like Innsbruck, pictured above. Sometimes they are make-believe terrains, like the fictional Pacific Island Watopia, below:

Min tells me he started Zwift out of London because that is where he lives, but much of the development has come out of southern California, since that is where there is a stronghold of gaming developers. Min himself is an expat from America (there are a lot of us here!), New York specifically, who previously had been a VP at JP Morgan and then founded a fintech company called Sakkonet Technology that’s still going strong, and he happens to be a cycling enthusiast going back to childhood.

“I wanted to do something different from fintech and the idea for Zwift was starting right at me,” he said. “I was a cyclist since I was a kid, painfully so. The worst thing you could do is ride your bike indoors because it was so boring. I used all the products I could but it wasn’t engaging enough, so we thought, what about taking the tech that out there for gaming, combining that with what you do in cycle training, and bring all that to a digital platform? Even if you could get 80 percent of the experience, that would be better than what was offered in the past.” 

Highland and the other investors are all strategic, in that they are already investing quite a bit in other fitness enterprises, which could in turn point to partnerships down the road. Highland’s in eGym and Huel; True backs the Ribble cycling brand; and Causeway invests in traditional sports and esports.

“Zwift is a fantastically innovative company and they are certainly leading the way in the indoor training space,” says Tony Zappala, Partner of Highland Europe in a statement. “It’s a highly scalable business and we’ve been impressed with how they have already managed to expand globally – already 70 percent of current subscribers are from outside the USA. Research points to an audience of 40 million competitive and enthusiast cyclists, and many of those lie in the traditional cycling nations of Central Europe, so in this market alone there is huge growth potential.”

 

 

A month after $70M, Clearbanc raises $50M fund to front startups ad money

Clearbanc is disrupting startup funding by providing companies cash to buy ads in exchange for a revenue share so they don’t have to sell as much equity to venue capitalists. That idea has proven so appealing that 1000 companies seeking up to $1 billion total hit up Clearbanc since we reported it raised $70 million last month. So to meet the demand of the most eligible startups asking for marketing cash, Clearbanc has just raised a $50 million fund from Seamless co-founder Jason Finger’s new firm Upper90.

If a company’s Facebook ads and Stripe sales metrics show it’s a sure bet, Clearbanc can provide $5,000 to $10 million in funding to pour fuel on the fire. Startups invest that into ad spend, and then split the revenue with Clearbanc from the sales triggered by those ads until it’s paid back plus six percent. Essentially, Clearbanc offers an alternative to selling valuable equity and control to VCs by offering capital based on new data sources traditional banks aren’t looking at.

“In 2018, Clearbanc has funded over $100M into 500 different companies. Our portfolio companies are putting that capital to work and growing at over 100% year over year on average” co-founder and CEO Andrew D’Souza tells us.

Clearbanc co-founder Michele Romanow

To back the investments, Clearbanc raises sub-funds from LPs who earn a return through a slice of the revenue sharing deals. Part of the last $70 million was used to set up the first Clearbanc fund, and the whole $50 million being announced today is the second fund. Clearbanc expects the funds to mature and pay out after just two years, offering LPs a faster but lower-stakes return then typical eight-year VC funds. Upper90’s goal is just those sort of steady gains. “This deal literally came together in 3 weeks from first meeting to close, which was unheard of” D’Souza notes.

He wouldn’t say exactly how much Clearbanc has raised in traditional equity for itself, but revealed most of the $70 million round’s investors were buying standard equity and it has some flexibility in how it applies some of the funding. D’Souza tells me “We have been largely focused on ecommerce companies and subscription ecommerce, but have started doing some deals with enterprise companies.  In 2019 we plan to expand internationally beyond the US and Canada, introduce new verticals, and launch new financial products to help entrepreneurs.”

Previously at McKinsey, D’Souza had raised over $300 million in venture for startups before teaming up on angel investments with Michele Romanow, an investor from Canada’s Shark Tank-style TV show Dragons’ Den. The two have become a romantic couple amidst Clearbanc’s start in 2015. It’s now taken cash from Emergence Capital, Social, Social Capital, CoVenture, Founders Fund, 8VC and others. Groupon co-founder Ranjen Ruparell and Third Point hedge fund partner Keri Findley are now joining Clearbanc’s board. “We may take on more traditional equity in the future but we don’t need it right now” D’Souza reveals. “We will raise an additional 250-300M in LP capital next year to continue to meet demand.”

We are witnessing an evolution of the growth capital business – entrepreneurs do not want to be forced to choose between restrictive equity or debt arrangements to fund their business growth” Cleabanc’s new board member Findley says. “Clearbanc is building a new asset class that is compelling for entrepreneurs as well as investors looking for strong risk-adjusted returns.”

The business model depends on Clearbanc accurately assessing demand for the products for which it’s funding ad buys. If products flop and the startups don’t have much revenue to share, its influx of LPs will dry up. Clearbanc is also vulnerable to changes in the ad market and platforms like Facebook or Google. If ad prices go up or new content formats like Instagram Stories don’t work as well for direct response ecommerce ads, that could also put the squeeze on Clearbanc. “We’re funding customer acquisition across platforms (it just happens to be primarily on Facebook and Google right now)” D’Souza counters. “We’re looking at data across our portfolio and building relationships with emerging platforms to help our companies stay ahead of the curve”

Given the explosion of direct to consumer brands in the wake of successes like Dollar Shave Club’s acquisition for $1 billion, there may be plenty of startups clamoring for Clearbanc’s capital.

Ola, Uber’s India rival, invests $100M in scooter rental startup Vogo

We’re familiar with Uber cozying up to scooter startups — it has bought one and invested in another — but over in India, the U.S. firm’s key rival is hatching a major alliance of its own it invested $100 million in scooter rental startup Vogo.

Ola first invested back in August when Vogo raised an undisclosed Series A round from Ola, Matrix Partners and other investors, but now Ola is doubling down with this follow-on deal. It isn’t saying how much equity it has captured with this investment, nor the valuation that it gives Vogo but you can well imagine it is high for a company that has only just done its Series A.

As you’d expect, this is a strategic investment and it’ll mean that Vogo scooters will appear within the Ola app, from where they can be booked by the company’s 150 million registered users, “soon.” Bangalore and Hyderabad are the two cities where Vogo operates, but you’d imagine that it will lean on Ola to expand into other parts of tier-one India where Ola already has a strong presence.

Ola’s money is going directly into supply, with Vogo planning to buy 100,000 more scooters for its platform. The company’s scooters, for those who don’t know them, are unlocked using a one-time password generated from the company’s Android app. Scooters are either dropped off at a designated station, or the rider specifies that they are taking a round trip and then returns it to the station where they started.

Ola CEO and co-founder Bhavish Aggarwal — pictured in the top image alongside Vogo CEO and founder Anand Ayyadurai — said he hopes that the deal and integration will improve last-mile transportation options across India.

A selection of screen captures from the Vogo Android app

“Our investment in Vogo will help build a smart multi-modal network for first-last mile connectivity in the country. Vogo’s automated scooter-sharing platform, backed by Ola’s expertise in this space can help transform our cities. Together, we are thrilled to be at the forefront of India’s rapidly growing micro-mobility market,” he said in a prepared statement.

Ola previously invested in its own bike rental service last year, although that category has struggled in India as Chinese imports like Ofo have fled the country after struggling to develop a sustainable business in the country, and others outside of China. Ola and also Uber have offered motorbike taxis in India since 2016, but scooters offer a more individual approach.

Uber, for its part, doesn’t offer scooters in India at this point. But with India its second-largest market — it has reportedly crossed $1.6 billion in annualized bookings — you’d imagine that it is near the top of the company’s thoughts… although there is the business of that upcoming U.S. IPO to deal with.

Propel raises $12.8M for its free app to manage government benefits

Propel, maker of the Fresh EBT app for managing food stamps and other benefits, announced today that it has raised $12.8 million in Series A funding.

Fresh EBT (the EBT stands for the Electronics Transfer Benefit card, which is how food stamp participants receive their benefits) allows users to check their food stamp/SNAP balance and find stores that accept food stamps. Users can also track their spending. The app is free for consumers and government agencies — the company makes money through digital coupons and a job board.

Propel says Fresh EBT is now used by more than 1.5 million Americans each month, and that more than 30,000 people have applied for jobs this year that they discovered through the app. For example, the announcement quotes one user, Tracy B. from Fairland, Virginia — she described Fresh EBT as her “personal financial adviser,” and also said she used it to find discount zoo tickets, and even her current job.

When Propel raised its $4 million seed round last year, founder and CEO Jimmy Chen described his mission as building “a more user-friendly safety net.” He argued that there’s no conflict between Propel’s social mission and its structure as a for-profit business, a position he reiterated in today’s announcement.

“Our investors are world-class experts in their respective fields,” he said. “They share an understanding of the challenges of low-income Americans and a belief that Propel can build a massive business by fighting poverty.”

Those investors include Nyca Partners, which led the round. Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Omidyar Network, Alexa von Tobel and Kevin Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures also participated.

“It’s not hard to see the huge opportunity in building better financial services for low-income people,” said Nyca Managing Partner Hans Morris in a statement. “We just haven’t seen many companies in this space that have an opportunity to have such a large impact at massive scale. That’s why we’re so excited to invest in Propel.”

A former Ofo exec is launching his own scooter startup

The funding extravaganza may be approaching its end for scooter “unicorns” Lime and Bird, but smaller startups in the micro-mobility space have continued to close venture capital rounds at a consistent pace. See Grin, Tier and Yellow for examples.

The latest is Dott, a European scooter startup founded by Maxim Romain, Ofo’s former head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Romain joined Ofo, a Chinese bike- and scooter-sharing company that raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding but has struggled to scale overseas, in 2018 to help it expand. He only lasted seven months before realizing he could do it better himself.

“Why work for a Chinese company when we can do it ourselves in Europe where we better understand the market?” Romain told TechCrunch. 

Dott, headquartered in Amsterdam, has raised €20 million in a round co-led by EQT Ventures and Naspers. Axel Springer Digital Ventures, DN Capital, Felix Capital and others also joined. Dott is using the capital to launch in several cities across Europe, beginning with an early 2019 e-scooter pilot at Station F, a startup campus located in Paris. Additional launches are in the pipeline, as are electric bikes.

As a result of its learnings from Ofo, Bird and Lime, all of which have struggled to keep their equipment out of disadvantageous spots, like trees, lakes and garbage cans, Dott says it’s built sturdier scooters. They have 10” wheels, wider decks, a double brake system for safety, a speed cap at 20km/h and apparently are able to hold a charge longer than competing scooters — though we couldn’t independently verify this.

Dott says it’s taking a friendlier approach to launching in new cities, again, unlike some of its predecessors. If you remember, Bird showed up in a number of cities without permission — a move that resulted in it being denied a permit to operate in San Francisco. Dott will hire local teams to collaborate with city officials to develop pilot plans tailored to each market and it won’t rely on gig economy workers to recharge, clean and maintain scooters. Instead, it will hire and train a team of Dott employees dedicated to maintenance in each city.

“I think a lot of the companies grow too fast in the sense that they don’t necessarily have the product that can enable them to be profitable but because they want to win the race,” Romain said. “They want to raise as much money as possible as quick as possible and to deploy scooters as quick as possible. This creates an environment for them where their unit economics are extremely bad.”

“That’s exactly what we saw with bike-sharing in China. In the end, the reality of the unit economics came back to bite them. It’s a risk. Lime and Bird are doing a lot to improve their hardware but it’s a risk for the industry. For us, we are taking the view that we really need to focus on the product so we have the right unit economics and we can be sustainable. If you want to make it happen, you have to make it happen in a sustainable way.”

LemonBox, which brings US vitamins to Chinese consumers, raises $2M

LemonBox, a Chinese e-commerce startup that imports vitamins and health products from the US, has raised $2 million to develop its business.

The company graduated from Y Combinator’s most recent program in the U.S. and, fuelled by the demo day, it has pulled in the new capital from 10 investors which include Partech, Tekton Ventures, Cathexis Ventures, Scrum Ventures and 122 West Ventures.

LemonBox started when co-founder and CEO Derek Weng, a former employee at Walmart in the U.S, saw an opportunity to organize the common practice of bringing health products back in China. Any Mainland Chinese person who has lived or even just visited the U.S. will be familiar with such requests from family and friends, and LemonBox aims to make it possible for anyone in China to get U.S-quality products without relying on a mule.

The service is primarily a WeChat app — which taps into China’s ubiquitous messaging platform — and a website, although Weng told TechCrunch in an interview this week that the company is contemplating a standalone app of its own. The benefit of that, beyond a potentially more engaging customer experience, could be to broaden LemonBox’s product selection and use data to offer a more customized selection of products. Related to that, LemonBox said it hopes to work with health and fitness-related services in the future to gather data, with permission, to help refine the personal approach.

LemonBox’s team has now grown to 20 people, with 12 full-time staff and 8 interns, and Weng said that the new funding will also go towards increased marketing, improvements to the WeChat app and upgrading the company’s supply chain. Business, he added, is growing at 35 percent per week as LemonBox has adopted a personal approach to its packaging, much like Amazon-owned PillPack.

“This is the first time people in China have ever seen this level of customization for their vitamins,” Weng told TechCrunch.

Members of the LemonBox team with Qi Lu, who heads up Y Combinator’s China business

Qi Lu, the former Microsoft and Baidu executive who leads YC’s new China unit, said he is “bullish” about the business.

“What LemonBox offers resonates with me and is serving a clear China market needs. Personally, I travel a lot between China and the U.S, and I often was asked by my relatives to help purchase and carry them similar products like vitamins,” he said in a prepared statement.

“More importantly, what LemonBox can do is to build an initial core user base and a growing brand. Over time, by serving their users well, it can reach and engage more users who want to better take care of their broader nutrition needs, use more data and take advantage of increasingly stronger AI technologies to customers and personalize, and become an essential service for more and more users and customers in China,” Lu added.

Distinguished VCs back wholesale marketplace Faire with $100M at a $535M valuation

A slew of venture capitalists known for high-profile exits — Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures, Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital and Alex Taussig of Lightspeed Venture Partners — have invested in Faire (formerly known as Indigo Fair), a 2-year-old wholesale marketplace for artisanal products.

A quick glance at Faire suggests it’s a combination of Pinterest and Etsy, complete with trendy, pastel stationery, soap, baby products and more, all made by independent artisans and sold to retailers. Faire has today announced a $100 million fundraise across two financing rounds: a $40 million Series B led by Taussig at Lightspeed and a $60 million Series C led by Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. New investors Founders Fund, the venture firm founded by Peter Thiel, and DST Global also participated. The business has previously brought in a total of $16 million.

The latest financing values Faire at $535 million, according to a source familiar with the deal.

If you’re feeling a little bit of déjà vu, that’s because a similar startup also raised a sizeable round of venture capital funding, announced today. That’s Minted . The 10-year-old company, best known for its wide assortment of wedding invitations and stationery, raised $208 million led by Permira, with participation from T. Rowe Price. Though Minted is first and foremost a consumer-facing marketplace, it plans to double down on its wholesale business with its latest infusion of capital, setting it up to be among Faire’s biggest competitors.

Like Minted, Faire leverages artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to forecast which products will fly off its virtual shelves in order to to source and manage inventory as efficiently as possible. The approach appears to be working; Faire says it has 15,000 retailers actively purchasing from its platform — a 3,140 percent year-over-year increase. It’s garnered $100 million in run rate sales and has expanded its community of artists 445 percent YoY, to 2,000.

The company, headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Ontario and Waterloo, was founded by three former Square employees: chief executive officer Max Rhodes, who was product manager on a variety of strategic initiatives, including Square Capital and Square Cash; chief data officer Daniele Perito, who led risk and security for Square Cash; and chief technology officer Marcelo Cortes, a former engineering lead for Square Cash.

“Our mission at Faire is to empower entrepreneurs to chase their dreams,” Rhodes wrote in a blog post this morning. “We believe entrepreneurship is a calling. Starting a business provides a level of autonomy and fulfillment that’s become difficult to find for many elsewhere in the economy. With this in mind, we built Faire to help entrepreneurs on both sides of our marketplace succeed.”

They scaled YouTube. Now they’ll shard everyone with PlanetScale

When the former CTOs of YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox seed fund a database startup, you know there’s something special going on under the hood. Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane saved YouTube from a scalability nightmare by inventing and open sourcing Vitess, a brilliant relational data storage system. But in the decade since working there, the pair have been inundated with requests from tech companies desperate for help building the operational scaffolding needed to actually integrate Vitess.

So today the pair are revealing their new startup PlanetScale that makes it easy to build multi-cloud databases that handle enormous amounts of information without locking customers into Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s infrastructure. Battletested at YouTube, the technology could allow startups to fret less about their backend and focus more on their unique value proposition. “Now they don’t have to reinvent the wheel” Vaidya tells me. “A lot of companies facing this scaling problem end up solving it badly in-house and now there’s a way to solve that problem by using us to help.”

PlanetScale has quietly raised a $3 million seed round in April led by SignalFire and joined by a who’s who of engineering luminaries. They include YouTube co-founder and CTO Steve Chen, Quora CEO and former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, former Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal, PayPal and Affirm co-founder Max Levchin, MuleSoft co-founder and CTO Ross Mason, Google director of engineering Parisa Tabriz, and Facebook’s first female engineer and South Park Commons Founder Ruchi Sanghvi. If anyone could foresee the need for Vitess implementation services, it’s these leaders who’ve dealt with scaling headaches at tech’s top companies.

But how can a scrappy startup challenge the tech juggernauts for cloud supremacy? First, by actually working with them. The PlanetScale beta that’s now launching lets companies spin up Vitess clusters on its database-as-a-service, their own through a licensing deal, or on AWS with Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure coming shortly. Once these integrations with the tech giants are established, PlanetScale clients can use it as an interface for a multi-cloud setup where they could keep their data master copies on AWS US-West with replicas on Google Cloud in Ireland and elsewhere. That protects companies from becoming dependent on one provider and then getting stuck with price hikes or service problems.

PlanetScale also promises to uphold the principles that undergirded Vitess. “It’s our value that we will keep everything in the query pack completely open source so none of our customers ever have to worry about lock-in” Vaidya says.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Battletested, YouTube Approved

He and Sougoumarane met 25 years ago while at Indian Institute Of Technology Bombay. Back in 1993 they worked at pioneering database company Informix together before it flamed out. Sougoumarane was eventually hired by Elon Musk as an early engineer for X.com before it got acquired by PayPal, and then left for YouTube. Vaidya was working at Google and the pair were reunited when it bought YouTube and Sougoumarane pulled him on to the team.

“YouTube was growing really quickly and the relationship database they were using with MySQL was sort of falling apart at the seams” Vaidya recalls. Adding more CPU and memory to the database infra wasn’t cutting it, so the team created Vitess. The horizontal scaling sharding middleware for MySQL let users segment their database to reduce memory usage while still being able to rapidly run operations. YouTube has smoothly ridden that infrastructure to 1.8 billion users ever since.

“Sugu and Mike Solomon invented and made Vitess open source right from the beginning since 2010 because they knew the scaling problem wasn’t just for YouTube, and they’ll be at other companies 5 or 10 years later trying to solve the same problem” Vaidya explains. That proved true, and now top apps like Square and HubSpot run entirely on Vitess, with Slack now 30 percent onboard.

Vaidya left YouTube in 2012 and became the lead engineer at Endorse, which got acquired by Dropbox where he worked for four years. But in the meantime, the engineering community strayed towards MongoDB-style key-value store databases, which Vaidya considers inferior. He sees indexing issues and says that if the system hiccups during an operation, data can become inconsistent — a big problem for banking and commerce apps. “We think horizontally-scaled relationship databases are more elegant and are something enterprises really need.

Database Legends Reunite

Fed up with the engineering heresy, a year ago Vaidya committed to creating PlanetScale. It’s composed of four core offerings: professional training in Vitess, on-demand support for open source Vitess users, Vitess database-as-a-service on Planetscale’s servers, and software licensing for clients that want to run Vitess on premises or through other cloud providers. It lets companies re-shard their databases on the fly to relocate user data to comply with regulations like GDPR, safely migrate from other systems without major codebase changes, make on-demand changes, and run on Kubernetes.

The PlanetScale team

PlanetScale’s customers now include Indonesian ecommerce giant Bukalapak, and it’s helping Booking.com, GitHub, and New Relic migrate to open source Vitess. Growth is suddenly ramping up due to inbound inquiries. Last month around when Square Cash became the number one app, its engineering team published a blog post extolling the virtues of Vitess. Now everyone’s seeking help with Vitess sharding, and PlanetScale is waiting with open arms. “Jiten and Sugu are legends and know firsthand what companies require to be successful in this booming data landscape” says Ilya Kirnos, founding partner and CTO of SignalFire.

The big cloud providers are trying to adapt to the relational database trend, with Google’s Cloud Spanner and Cloud SQL, and Amazon’s AWS SQL and AWS Aurora. Their huge networks and marketing war chests could pose a threat. But Vaidya insists that while it might be easy to get data into these systems, it can be a pain to get it out. PlanetScale is designed to give them freedom of optionality through its multi-cloud functionality so their eggs aren’t all in one basket.

Finding product market fit is tough enough. Trying to suddenly scale a popular app while also dealing with all the other challenges of growing a company can drive founders crazy. But if it’s good enough for YouTube, startups can trust PlanetScale to make databases one less thing they have to worry about.

TNB Aura closes $22.7M fund to bring PE-style investing to Southeast Asia’s startups

TNB Aura, a recent arrival to Southeast Asia’s VC scene, announced today that it has closed a maiden fund at SG$31.1million, or around US$22.65 million, to bring a more private equity-like approach to investing in startups in the region.

The fund was launched in 2016 and it is a joint effort between Australia-based venture fund Aura and Singapore’s TNB Ventures, which has a history of corporate innovation work. It reached a final close today, having hit an early close in January. It is a part of the Enterprise Singapore ‘Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering’ scheme which, as you’d expect, means there is a focus on hardware, IO, AI and other future-looking tech like ‘industry 4.0.’

The fund is targeting Series A and B deals and it has the firepower to do 15-20 deals over likely the next two to three years, co-founder and managing partner Vicknesh R Pillay told TechCrunch in an interview. There’s around $500,000-$4 million per company, with the ideal scenario being an initial $1 million check with more saved for follow-on rounds. Already it has backed four companies including TradeGecko, which raised $10 million in a round that saw TNB Aura invest alongside Aura, and AI marketing platform Ematic.

The fund has a team of 10, including six partners and an operating staff of four. It pitches itself a little differently to most other VCs in the region given that manufacturing and engineering bent. That, Pillay said, means it is focused on “hardware plus software” startups.

“We are very strong fundamentals guys,” Pillay added. We ask what is the valuation and decide what we can get from a deal. It’s almost like PE-style investing in the VC world.”

A selection of the TNB Aura team [left to right]: Samuel Chong (investment manager), Calvin Ng, Vicknesh R Pillay, Charles Wong (partners), Liu Zhihao (investment manager)

Another differentiator, Pillay believes, is the firm’s history in the corporate innovation space. That leads it to be pretty well suited to working in the B2B and enterprise spaces thanks to its existing networks, he said.

“We particularly like B2B saas companies and we believe we can assist them through of our innovation platforms,” Pillay explained.

Outside of Singapore — which is a heavy focus thanks to the relationship with Enterprise Singapore — TNB Aura is focused on Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, four of the largest markets that form a large chunk of Southeast Asia’s cumulative 650 million population. With an internet population of over 330 million — higher than the entire U.S. population — the region is set to grow strongly as internet access increases. A recent report from Google and Temasek tipped the region’s digital economy will triple to reach $240 billion by 20205.

The report also found that VC funding in Southeast Asia is developing at a fast clip. Excluding unicorns, which distort the data somewhat, startups raised $2.6 billion in the first half of this year, beating the $2.4 billion tally for the whole of 2017.

There are plenty of other Series A-B funds in the region, including Jungle Ventures, Golden Gate Ventures, Openspace Ventures, Monks Hill Ventures, Qualgro and more.

Starbucks challenger Luckin snags $200M investment on $2.2B valuation

Luckin, a startup that vows to topple Starbucks’ dominance in China, announced on Wednesday that it’s lifted its valuation to $2.2 billion after raising $200 million in a series B funding round.

That came only five months after the coffee upstart, which soft-launched in January, picked up $200 million in investment. Luckin has been on a spending spree to open shop and burnt through $150 million within the first six months in operation, its founder said in July when the company had a cash reserve of 2 billion yuan, or roughly $290 million.

Luckin currently operates across 21 major Chinese cities, totaling more than 1,700 shops. For comparison, Starbucks’s footprint spanned 3,300 stores in China as of May, though one has to take into account that the Seattle coffee chain entered China nearly 20 years ago.

Different from Starbucks, Luckin’s brick-and-mortar facilities are a mix of sit-down cafes and pickup booths, which double as delivery hubs, and take-out kitchens that are solely for delivery staff to pick up caffeine-infused orders and put them in customers’ hands within 30 minutes.

As a result, Luckin managed to build a dense network targeting office workers who may be drawn to the idea of coffee delivery because they can’t leave their desk. There’s at least one Luckin location within a 500-meter radius anywhere in downtown Shanghai and Beijing, the company claimed.

The light speed at which Luckin has expanded in less than a year probably got on the nerves of Starbucks, which went on to team up with Alibaba-owned food delivery giant Ele.me in August to bring coffee to people’s doorstep. The American company aims to expand its delivery services to 30 cities in China by the end of 2018.

Luckin’s co-founder and chief executive officer Qian Zhiya, who is the former chief operating officer at one of China’s largest auto rental firms CAR Inc, said her startup will continue to invest in products, technology and business development to improve user experience following the new round.

Luckin raised the fresh capital from existing investors Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC, Chinese government-controlled China International Capital Corporation, Joy Capital and Dazheng Capital. Liu Erhai, founding and managing partner of Joy Capital, joined Luckin’s board of directors following the close of the round. Liu’s investment portfolio includes Car Inc, Facebook’s old Chinese rival Renren and Hong Kong-listed game publisher iDreamsky.