SpinLaunch spins up a $35M round to continue building its space catapult

SpinLaunch, a company that aims to turn the launch industry on its head with a wild new concept for getting to orbit, has raised a $35M round B to continue its quest. The team has yet to demonstrate their kinetic launch system, but this year will be the year that changes, they claim.

TechCrunch first reported on SpinLaunch’s ambitious plans in 2018, when the company raised its previous $35 million, which combined with $10M it raised prior to that and today’s round comes to a total of $80M. With that kind of money you might actually be able to build a space catapult.

The basic idea behind SpinLaunch’s approach is to get a craft out of the atmosphere using a “rotational acceleration method” that brings a craft to escape velocity without any rockets. While the company has been extremely tight-lipped about the details, one imagines a sort of giant rail gun curled into a spiral, from which payloads will emerge into the atmosphere at several thousand miles per hour — weather be damned.

Naturally there is no shortage of objections to this method, the most obvious of which is that going from an evacuated tube into the atmosphere at those speeds might be like firing the payload into a brick wall. It’s doubtful that SpinLaunch would have proceeded this far if it did not have a mitigation for this (such as the needle-like appearance of the concept craft) and other potential problems, but the secretive company has revealed little.

The time for broader publicity may soon be at hand, however: the funds will be used to build out its new headquarter and R&D facility in Long Beach, but also to complete its flight test facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico.

“Later this year, we aim to change the history of space launch with the completion of our first flight test mass accelerator at Spaceport America,” said founder and CEO Jonathan Yaney in a press release announcing the funding.

Lowering the cost of launch has been the focus of some of the most successful space startups out there, and SpinLaunch aims to leapfrog their cost savings by offering orbital access for under $500,000. First commercial launch is targeted for 2022, assuming the upcoming tests go well.

The funding round was led by previous investors Airbus Ventures, GV, and KPCB, as well as Catapult Ventures, Lauder Partners, John Doerr and Byers Family.

Marijuana delivery giant Eaze may go up in smoke

The first cannabis startup to raise big money in Silicon Valley is in danger of burning out. TechCrunch has learned that pot delivery middleman Eaze has seen unannounced layoffs, and its depleted cash reserves threaten its ability to make payroll or settle its AWS bill. Eaze was forced to raise a bridge round to keep the lights on as it prepares to attempt major pivot to ‘touching the plant’ by selling its own marijuana brands through its own depots.

If Eaze fails, it could highlight serious growing pains amid the ‘green rush’ of startups into the marijuana business.

Eaze, the startup backed by some $166 million in funding that once positioned itself as the “Uber of pot” — a marketplace selling pot and other cannabis products from dispensaries and delivering it to customers — has recently closed a $15 million bridge round, according to multiple source. The fund was meant to keep the lights on as Eaze struggles to raise its next round of funding amid problems with making decent margins on its current business model, lawsuits, payment processing issues, and internal disorganization.

 

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company is low on cash. Sources tell us that the company, which laid off some 30 people last summer, is preparing another round of cuts in the meantime. The spokesperson refused to discuss personnel issues but noted that there have been layoffs at many late stage startups as investors want to see companies cut costs and become more efficient.

From what we understand, Eaze is currently trying to raise a $35 million Series D round according to its pitch deck. The $15 million bridge round came from unnamed current investors. (Previous backers of the company include 500 Startups, DCM Ventures, Slow Ventures, Great Oaks, FJ Labs, the Winklevoss brothers, and a number of others.) Originally, Eaze had tried to raise a $50 million Series D, but the investor that was looking at the deal, Athos Capital, is said to have walked away at the eleventh hour.

Eaze is going into the fundraising with an enterprise value of $388 million, according to company documents reviewed by TechCrunch. It’s not clear what valuation it’s aiming for in the next round.

An Eaze spokesperson declined to discuss fundraising efforts but told TechCrunch, “The company is going through a very important transition right now, moving to becoming a plant-touching company through acquisitions of former retail partners that will hopefully allow us to more efficiently run the business and continue to provide good service to customers.

Desperate to grow margins

The news comes as Eaze is hoping to pull off a “verticalization” pivot, moving beyond online storefront and delivery of third-party products (rolled joints, flower, vaping products and edibles) and into sourcing, branding and dispensing the product directly. Instead of just moving other company’s marijuana brands between third-party dispensaries and customers, it wants to sell its own in-house brands through its own delivery depots to earn a higher margin. With a number of other cannabis companies struggling, the hope is that it will be able to acquire brands in areas like marijuana flower, pre-rolled joints, vaporizer cartridges, or edibles at low prices.

An Eaze spokesperson confirmed that the company plans to announce the pivot in the coming days, telling TechCrunch that it’s “a pretty significant change from provider of services to operating in that fashion but also operating a depot directly ourselves.”

The startup is already making moves in this direction, and is in the process of acquiring some of the assets of a bankrupt cannabis business out of Canada called Dionymed — which had initially been a partner of Eaze’s, then became a competitor, and then sued it over payment disputes, before finally selling part of its business. These assets are said to include Oakland dispensary Hometown Heart, which it acquired in an all-share transaction (“Eaze effectively bought the lawsuit,” is how one source described the sale). This will become Eaze’s first owned delivery depot.

In a recent presentation deck that Eaze has been using when pitching to investors — which has been obtained by TechCrunch — the company describes itself as the largest direct-to-consumer cannabis retailer in California. It has completed more than 5 million deliveries, served 600,000 customers and tallied up an average transaction value of $85. 

To date, Eaze has only expanded to one other state beyond California, Oregon. Its aim is to add five more states this year, and another three in 2021. But the company appears to have expected more states to legalize recreational marijuana sooner, which would have provided geographic expansion. Eaze seems to have overextended itself too early in hopes of capturing market share as soon as it became available.

An employee at the company tells us that on a good day Eaze can bring in between $800,000 and $1 million in net revenue, which sounds great, except that this is total merchandise value, before any cuts to suppliers and others are made. Eaze makes only a fraction of that amount, one reason why it’s now looking to verticatlize into more of a primary role in the ecosystem. And that’s before considering all of the costs associated with running the business. 

Eaze is suffering from a problem rampant in the marijuana industry: a lack of working capital. Since banks often won’t issue working capital loans to weed-related business, deliverers like Eaze can experience delays in paying back vendors. A source says late payments have pushed some brands to stop selling through Eaze.

Another drain on its finances have been its marketing efforts. A source said out-of-home ads (billboards and the like) allegedly were a significant expense at one point. It has to compete with other pot purchasing options like visiting retail stores in person, using dispensaries’ in-house delivery services, or buying via startups like Meadow that act as aggregated online points of sale for multiple dispensaries.

Indeed, Eaze claims that its pivot into verticalization will bring it $204 million in revenues on gross transactions of $300 million. It notes in the presentation that it makes $9.04 on an average sale of $85, which will go up to $18.31 if it successfully brings in ‘private label’ products and has more depot control.

Selling weed isn’t eazy

The poor margins are only one of the problems with Eaze’s current business model, which the company admits in its presentation have led to an inconsistent customer experience and poor customer affinity with its brand — especially in the face of competition from a number of other delivery businesses.  

Playing on the on-demand, delivery-of-everything theme, it connected with two customer bases. First, existing cannabis consumers already using some form of delivery service for their supply; and a newer, more mainstream audience with disposable income that had become more interested in cannabis-related products but might feel less comfortable walking into a dispensary, or buying from a black market dealer.

It is not the only startup that has been chasing that audience. Other competitors in the wider market for cannabis discovery, distribution and sales include Weedmaps, Puffy, Blackbird, Chill (a brand from Dionymed that it founded after ending its earlier relationship with Eaze), and Meadow, with the wider industry estimated to be worth some $11.9 billion in 2018 and projected to grow to $63 billion by 2025.

Eaze was founded on the premise that the gradual decriminalisation of pot — first making it legal to buy for medicinal use, and gradually for recreational use — would spread across the US and make the consumption of cannabis-related products much more ubiquitous, presenting a big opportunity for Eaze and other startups like it. 

It found a willing audience among consumers, but also tech workers in the Bay Area, a tight market for recruitment. 

“I was excited for the opportunity to join the cannabis industry,” one source said. “It has for the most part has gotten a bad rap, and I saw Eaze’s mission as a noble thing, and the team seemed like good people.”

Eaze CEO Ro Choy

That impression was not to last. The company, this employee was told when joining, had plenty of funding with more on the way. The newer funding never materialised, and as Eaze sought to figure out the best way forward, the company cycled through different ideas and leadership: former Yammer executive Keith McCarty, who cofounded the company with Roie Edery (both are now founders at another Cannabis startup, Wayv), left, and the CEO role was given to another ex-Yammer executive, Jim Patterson, who was then replaced by Ro Choy, who is the current CEO. 

“I personally lost trust in the ability to execute on some of the vision once I got there,” the ex-employee said. “I thought that on one hand a picture was painted that wasn’t the truth. As we got closer and as I’d been there longer and we had issues with funding, the story around why we were having issues kept changing.” Several sources familiar with its business performance and culture referred to Eaze as a “shitshow”.

No ‘Push For Kush’

The quick shifts in strategy were a recurring pattern that started well before the company got tight financial straits. 

One employee recalled an acquisition Eaze made several years ago of a startup called Push for Pizza. Founded by five young friends in Brooklyn, Push for Pizza had gone viral over a simple concept: you set up your favourite pizza order in the app, and when you want it, you pushed a single button to order it. (Does that sound silly? Don’t forget, this was also the era of Yo, which was either a low point for innovation, or a high point for cynicism when it came to average consumer intelligence… maybe both.)

Eaze’s idea, the employee said, was to take the basics of Push for Pizza and turn it into a weed app, Push for Kush. In it, customers could craft their favourite mix and, at the touch of a button, order it, lowering the procurement barrier even more.

The company was very excited about the deal and the prospect of the new app. They planned a big campaign to spread the word, and held an internal event to excite staff about the new app and business line. 

“They had even made a movie of some kind that they showed us, featuring a caricature of Jim” — the CEO at a the time — “hanging out of the sunroof of a limo.” (I’ve been able to find the opening segment of this video online, and the Twitter and Instagram accounts that had been created for Push for Kush, but no more than that.)

Then just one week later, the whole plan was scrapped, and the founders of Push for Pizza fired. “It was just brushed under the carpet,” the former employee said. “No one could get anything out of management about what had happened.”

Something had happened, though: the company had been taking payments by card when it made the acquisition, but the process was never stable and by then it had recently gone back to the cash-only model. Push for Kush by cash was less appealing. “They didn’t think it would work,” the person said, adding that this was the normal course of business at the startup. “Big initiatives would just die in favor of pushing out whatever new thing was on the product team’s radar.” 

Eaze’s spokesperson confirmed that “we did acquire Push For Pizza . . but ultimately didn’t choose to pursue [launching Push For Kush].”

Payments were a recurring issue for the startup. Eaze started out taking payments only in cash — but as the business grew, that became increasingly problematic. The company found itself kicked off the credit card networks and was stuck with a less traceable, more open to error (and theft) cash-only model at a time when one employee estimated it was bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million per day in sales. 

Eventually, it moved to cards, but not smoothly: Visa specifically did not want Eaze on its platform. Eaze found a workaround, employees say, but it was never above board, which became the subject of the lawsuit between Eaze and Dionymed. Currently the company appear to only take payments via debit cards, ACH transfer, and cash, not credit card.

Another incident sheds light on how the company viewed and handled security issues. 

Can Eaze rise from the ashes?

At one point, employees allegedly discovered that Eaze was essentially storing all of its customer data — including users’ signatures and other personal information — in an Azure bucket that was not secured, meaning that if anyone was nosing around, it could be easily discovered and exploited.

The vulnerability was brought to the company’s attention. It was something that was up to product to fix, but the job was pushed down the list. It ultimately took seven months to patch this up. “I just kept seeing things with all these huge holes in them, just not ready for prime time,” one ex-employee said of the state of products. “No one was listening to engineers, and no one seemed to be looking for viable products.” Eaze’s spokesperson confirms a vulnerability was discovered but claims it was promptly resolved.

Today, the issue is a more pressing financial one: the company is running out of money. Employees have been told the company may not make its next payroll, and AWS will shut down its servers in two days if it doesn’t pay up. 

Eaze’s spokesperson tried to remain optimistic while admitting the dire situation the company faces. “Eaze is going to continue doing everything we can to support customers and the overall legal cannabis industry. We’re excited about the future and acknowledge the challenges that the entire community is facing.”

As medicinal and recreational marijuana access became legal in some states in the latter 2010s, entrepreneurs and investors flocked to the market. They saw an opportunity to capitalize on the end of a major prohibition — a once in a lifetime event. But high government taxes, enduring black markets, intense competition, and a lack of financial infrastructure willing to deal with any legal haziness have caused major setbacks.

While the pot business might sound chill, operations like Eaze depend on coordinating high-stress logistics with thin margins and little room for error. Plenty of food delivery startups from Sprig to Munchery went under after running into similar struggles, and at least banks and payment processors would work with them. With the odds stacked against it, Eaze has a tough road ahead.

Loliware’s kelp-based plastic alternatives snag $6M seed round from eco-conscious investors

The last few years have seen many cities ban plastic bags, plastic straws and other common forms of waste, giving environmentally conscious alternatives a huge boost — among them Loliware, purveyor of fine disposable goods created from kelp. Huge demand and smart sourcing has attracted a big first funding round.

I covered Loliware early on when it was one of the first companies to be invested in by the Ocean Solutions Accelerator, a program started in 2017 by the nonprofit Sustainable Ocean Alliance. Founder Chelsea “Sea” Briganti told me about the new funding on the SOA’s strange yet quite successful “Accelerator at Sea” program late last year.

The company makes straws primarily, with other products planned, out of kelp matter. Kelp, if you’re not familiar, is a common type of aquatic algae (also called seaweed) that can grow quite large and is known for its robustness. It also grows in vast, vast quantities in many coastal locations, creating “kelp forests” that sustain entire ecosystems. Intelligent stewardship of these fast-growing kelp stocks could make them a significantly better source than corn or paper, which are currently used to create most biodegradable straws.

A proprietary process turns the kelp into straws that feel plastic-like but degrade simply (and not in your hot drink — it can stand considerably more exposure than corn and paper-based straws). Naturally the taste, desirable in some circumstances but not when drinking a seltzer, is also removed.

It took a lot of R&D and fine-tuning, Briganti told me:

“None of this has ever been done before. We led all development from material technology to new-to-world engineering of machinery and manufacturing practices. This way we ensure all aspects of the product’s development are truly scalable.”

They’ve gone through more than a thousand prototypes and are continuing to iterate as advances make possible things like higher flexibility or different shapes.

“Ultimately our material is a massive departure from the paradigms with which other companies are approaching the development of biodegradable materials,” she said. “They start with a problematic, last-forever, fossil fuel-derived paradigm and try to make it not so bad — this is step-change development and too slow and frumpy to truly make an impact.”

Of course it doesn’t matter how good your process is if no one is buying it, a fact that plagues many ethics-first operations, but in fact demand has grown so fast that Loliware’s biggest challenge has been scaling to meet it. The company has gone from a few million to a hundred million in recent years to a projected billion straws shipping in 2020.

“It takes us about 12 months to get to full automation [from the lab],” she said. “Once we get to full automation, we license the tech to a strategic plastic or paper manufacturer. Meaning, we do not manufacture billions of straws, or anything, in-house.”

It makes sense, of course, just as contracting out your PCB or plastic mold or what have you. Briganti wanted to have global impact, and that requires taking advantage of global infrastructure that’s already there.

Lastly, the consideration of a sustainable ecosystem was always important to Briganti, as the whole company is founded on the idea of reducing waste and using fundamentally ethical processes.

“Our products utilize a super-sustainable supply of seaweed, a supply that is overseen and regulated by local governments,” Briganti said. “In 2020, Loliware will launch the first-ever Algae Sustainability Council (ASC), which allows us to be at the helm of the design of these new global seaweed supply chain systems as well as establishing the oversight, ensuring sustainable practices and equitability. We are also pioneering what we have coined the ‘Zero Waste Circular Extraction Methodology,’ which will be a new paradigm in seaweed processing, utilizing every component of the biomass as it suggests.”

The $5.9 million “super seed” round has many investors, including several who were on board the ship in Alaska for the Accelerator at Sea this past October (as SOA Seabird Ventures). The CEO of Blue Bottle Coffee has invested, as have New York Ventures, Magic Hour, For Good VC, Hatzimemos/Libby, Geekdom Fund, HUmanCo VC, CityRock and Closed Loop Partners.

The money will be used for scaling and further R&D; Loliware plans to launch several new straw types (like a bent straw for juice boxes), a cup and a new utensil. 2020 may be the year you start seeing the company’s straws in your favorite coffee shop rather than a few early adopters here and there. You can keep track of where they can be found here at the company’s website.

Cyral announces $11M Series A to help protect data in cloud

Cyral, an early stage startup that helps protect data stored in cloud repositories, announced an $11 million Series A today. The company also revealed a previous undisclosed $4.1 million angel investment, making the total $15.1 million.

The Series A was led by Redpoint Ventures. A.Capital Ventures, Costanoa VC, Firebolt, SV Angel and Trifecta Capital also participated in on the round.

Cyral co-founder and CEO Manav Mital says the company’s product acts as a security layer on top of cloud data repositories — whether databases, data lakes, data warehouse or other data repository — helping identify issues like faulty configurations or anomalous activity.

Mital says that unlike most security data products of this ilk, Cyral doesn’t use an agent or watch points to try to detect signals that indicate something is happening to the data. Instead, he says that Cyral is a security layer attached directly to the data.

“The core innovation of Cyral is to put a layer of visibility attached right to the data endpoint, right to the interface where application services and users talk to the data endpoint, and in real time see the communication,” Mital explained.

As an example, he says that Cyral could detect that someone has suddenly started scanning rows of credit card data, or that someone was trying to connect to a database on an unencrypted connection. In each of these cases, Cyral would detect the problem, and depending on the configuration, send an alert to the customer’s security team to deal with the problem, or automatically shut down access to the database before informing the security team.

It’s still early days for Cyral with 15 employees and a handful of early access customers. Mital says for this round he’s working on building a product to market that’s well designed and easy to use.

He says that people get the problem he’s trying to solve. “We could walk into any company and they are all worried about this problem. So for us getting people interested has not been an issue. We just want to make sure we build an amazing product,” he said.

Cyral announces $11M Series A to help protect data in cloud

Cyral, an early stage startup that helps protect data stored in cloud repositories, announced an $11 million Series A today. The company also revealed a previous undisclosed $4.1 million angel investment, making the total $15.1 million.

The Series A was led by Redpoint Ventures. A.Capital Ventures, Costanoa VC, Firebolt, SV Angel and Trifecta Capital also participated in on the round.

Cyral co-founder and CEO Manav Mital says the company’s product acts as a security layer on top of cloud data repositories — whether databases, data lakes, data warehouse or other data repository — helping identify issues like faulty configurations or anomalous activity.

Mital says that unlike most security data products of this ilk, Cyral doesn’t use an agent or watch points to try to detect signals that indicate something is happening to the data. Instead, he says that Cyral is a security layer attached directly to the data.

“The core innovation of Cyral is to put a layer of visibility attached right to the data endpoint, right to the interface where application services and users talk to the data endpoint, and in real time see the communication,” Mital explained.

As an example, he says that Cyral could detect that someone has suddenly started scanning rows of credit card data, or that someone was trying to connect to a database on an unencrypted connection. In each of these cases, Cyral would detect the problem, and depending on the configuration, send an alert to the customer’s security team to deal with the problem, or automatically shut down access to the database before informing the security team.

It’s still early days for Cyral with 15 employees and a handful of early access customers. Mital says for this round he’s working on building a product to market that’s well designed and easy to use.

He says that people get the problem he’s trying to solve. “We could walk into any company and they are all worried about this problem. So for us getting people interested has not been an issue. We just want to make sure we build an amazing product,” he said.

Plant-based milk substitute market gets frothy with $225 million for Califia Farms

The market for companies developing dairy substitutes is really getting frothy.

In December, the startup Perfect Day Foods announced it had raised $110 million in financing for its dairy replacement and now Califia Farms, the producer of a range of oat and almond milk products (along with a slew of coffees, juices, and non-dairy snacks) has raised $225 million in fresh financing.

Investors in the round include the Qatar Investment Authority, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, Canada’ Claridge, and Hong Kong-based Green Monday Ventures (among others).

For Temasek, the deal comes on the heels of an incredibly successful investment in Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat substitute which has partnership agreements with food chains like Dunkin, McDonald’s, and Carl’s Jr. and whose meteoric rise in its public offering was one of the most successful of the IPOs of the last year.

Money from the new investor base, which joins previous investors Sun Pacific, Stripes and Ambrosia in backing the company, will be used to expand its oat-based suite of products and to launch other new product lines. The company said it will also use the money to increase its production capacity, research and development efforts, and geographical expansion.

Founded in 2010, Califia Farms is one of several startups that are making dairy replacements — either using plant-based ingredients or genetically modified organisms to produce the proteins and sugars that make dairy what it is.

Other companies like Perfect Day, Ripple Foods, Oatly have all raised capital to capture some aspect of the over $1 trillion dairy market.

“The more than $1 trillion global dairy and ready-to-drink coffee industry is ripe for continued disruption with individuals all over the world seeking to transform their health & wellness through the adoption of minimally processed and nutrient rich foods thatare better for both the planet and the animals,” said Greg Steltenpohl, Califia founder and chief executive, in a statement.

Barclays served as the financial advisor and placement agent for Califia on the capital raise.

Zinier raises $90M to automate field service management

Zinier, a startup that is bringing automation to the field service management realm, announced today that it has raised $90 million in fresh funding as it looks to tackle new categories and court more clients.

The San Francisco-based startup said its $90 million Series C financing round was led by ICONIQ Capital and saw participation from Tiger Global Management, and existing investors Accel, Founders Fund, Qualcomm Ventures, Nokia-backed NGP Capital, and France-based Newfund Capital.

The new financing round pushed the five year-old startup’s total raise to $120 million, and valued it above $500 million, one of its investors told TechCrunch. Zinier co-founder and chief executive Arka Dhar declined to comment on the valuation.

Zinier is helping the electricity and telecom industries automate their field services, a job that has typically innovated slowly and relied on legacy systems and manual processes, Dhar told TechCrunch in an interview.

“Field service means everything that happens from work of origination, their scheduling and dispatching, matching the right person with the right task at the right location, and at the end, verifying the task. It’s a complex, manual and disparate system. It typically sees 20% of our client’s expenses. We are optimizing these processes with AI to help these clients become more efficient and save money,” said Dhar.

Dhar declined to reveal all the major Zinier’s clients, but said some of the biggest players in the electricity and telecoms businesses work with the startup. 40% of the startup’s clients today are based in the U.S., 40% is in Latin America, and the rest is in Asia Pacific. The startup said it works with Black & Veatch and Car-Sa, and maintains strategic partnerships with system integrators such as Capgemini and Tata Consultancy Services.

Until two years ago, Zinier focused on the telecom industry, but has since expanded to serve energy and utility spaces. The fresh fund would help the startup double down its efforts in non-telecom industries, Dhar said.

A number of players are working on the field service management space. Major giants such as Salesforce and Microsoft own stakes in firms that operate in this industry and also offer their own products. ServiceMax was earlier acquired by GE Digital for $915 million. Without calling names, Dhar cautioned that some of its competitors are merely digitizing the pen and paper logs, and are not really optimizing the process.

“It is critical for companies to optimize this costly and complex part of their business, and Zinier has the platform-based technology and team to take on this global, multi-industry market. We are excited to partner with Zinier and support them in their mission of changing the paradigm on field service work on a global scale,” said Will Griffith, Partner at ICONIQ Capital.

Atrium lays off lawyers, explains pivot to legal tech

$75 million-funded legal services startup Atrium doesn’t want to be the next company to implode as the tech industry tightens its belt and businesses chase margins instead of growth via unsustainable economics. That’s why Atrium is laying off most of its   in-house lawyers.

Now, Atrium will focus on its software for startups navigating fundraising, hiring, and collaborating with lawyers. Atrium plans to ramp up its startup advising services. And it’s also doubling down on its year-old network of professional service providers that help clients navigate day-to-day legal work. Atrium’s laid off attorneys will be offered spots as preferred providers in that network if they start their own firm or join another.

“It’s a natural evolution for us to create a sustainable model” Atrium co-founder and CEO Justin Kan tells TechCrunch. “We’ve made the tough decision to restructure the company to accommodate growth into new business services through our existing professional services network” Kan wrote on Atrium’s blog. He wouldn’t give exact figures but confirmed that over 10 but under 50 staffers are impacted by the change, with Atrium having a headcount of 150 as of June.

The change could make Atrium more efficient by keeping fewer expensive lawyers on staff. However, it could weaken its $500 per month Atrium membership that included some services from its in-house lawyers that might be more complicated for clients to attain through its professional network. Atrium will also now have to prove the its client-lawyer collaboration software can survive in the market with firms paying for it rather than it being bundled with its in-house lawyers’ services.

“We’re making these changes to move Atrium to a sustainable model that provides high quality services to our clients. We’re doing it proactively because we see the writing on the wall that it’s important to have a sustainable business” Kan says. “That’s what we’re doing now. We don’t anticipate any disrupt of services to clients. We’re still here.”

Justin Kan (Atrium) at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017

Founded in 2017, Atrium promised to merge software with human lawyers to provide quicker and cheaper legal services. Its technology can help automatically generate fundraising contracts, hiring offers, and cap tables for startups while using machine learning to recommend procedures and clauses based on anonymized data from its clients. It also serves like a Dropbox for legal, organizing all of a startup’s documents to ensure everything’s properly signed and teams are working off the latest versions without digging through email.

The $500 per month Atrium membership offered this technology plus limited access to an in-house startup lawyer for consultation, plus access to guide books and events. Clients could pay extra if they needed special help such as with finalizing an acquisition deal, or access to its Fundraising Concierge service for aid with developing a pitch and lining up investor meetings.

Kan tells me Atrium still have some in-house lawyers on staff which will help it honor all its existing membership contracts and power its new emphasis on advising services. He wouldn’t say if Atrium is paid any equity for advising, or just cash. The membership plan may change for future clients so lawyer services are provided through its professional network instead.

“What we noticed was that Atrium has done a really good job of building a brand with startups. Often what they wanted from attorneys was…advice on how to set my company up, how to set my sales and marketing team up, how to get great terms in my fundraising process” so Atrium is pursuing advising, Kan tells me. “As we sat down to look at what’s working and what’s not working, our focus has been to help founders with their super-hero story, connect them with the right providers and advisors, and then helping quarterback everything you need with our in-house specialists.”

LawSites first reported Saturday that Atrium was laying off in-house lawyers. A source says that Atrium’s lawyers only found out a week ago about the changes, and they’ve been trying to pitch Atrium clients on working with them when they leave. One Atrium client said they weren’t surprised by the changes since they got so much legal advice for just $500 per month, which they suspected meant Atrium was losing money on the lawyers’ time since it was so much less expensive than competitors. They also said these cheap legal services rather than the software platform were the main draw of Atrium, and they’re unsure if the tech on its own is valuable enough.

One concern is Atrium might not learn as quickly about what services to translate into software if it doesn’t have as many lawyers in-house. But Kan believes third-party lawyers might be more clear and direct about what they need from legal technology. “I feel like having a true market for the software you’re building is better than having an internal market” he says. “We get feedback from the outside firms we work with. I think in some ways that’s the most valuable feedback. I think there’s a lot of false signals that can happen when you’re the both the employer and the supplier.”

It was critical for Atrium to correct course before getting any bigger given the fundraising problems hitting late-stage startups with poor economics in the wake of the WeWork debacle and SoftBank’s troubles. Atrium had raised a $10.5 million Series A in 2017 led by General Catalyst alongside Kleiner, Founders Fund, Initialized, and Kindred Ventures. The in September 2018 it scored a huge $65 million Series B led by Andresseen Horowitz.

Raising even bigger rounds might have been impossible if Atrium was offering consultations with lawyers at far below market rate. Now it might be in a better position to attract funding. But the question is whether clients will stick with Atrium if they get less access to a lawyer for the same price, and whether the collaboration platform is useful enough for outside law firms to pay for.

Kan had gone through tough pivots in the past. He had strapped a camera to his head to create content for his livestreaming startup Justin.tv, but wisely recentered on the 3% of users letting people watch them play video games. Justin.tv became Twitch and eventually sold to Amazon for $970 million. His on-demand personal assistant startup Exec had to switch to just cleaning in 2013 before shutting down due to rotten economics.

Rather than deny the inevitable and wait until the last minute, with Atrium Kan tried to make the hard decision early.

Transforming #MeToo into the industry’s first investor clause

“Keep your head high and give them hell.”

My grandma, Opal Thompson, once wrote that to me in a letter, like the dyed-in-the-wool, strong Texan woman she was. It is now tattooed on my forearm for all to see. Memories of her powerful presence and great advice have been a North Star on my path to entrepreneurship, as well as the kick in the pants I have needed along the way to confidently go toe-to-toe with nonbelievers in my industry. “Honey, you need to work harder and smarter than men and get ‘er done,” she once told me. It may sound folksy, but it’s gotten me to where I am today.

Last October, my fearless cofounder Carolyn Rodz and I “gave them hell” with an announcement of which I couldn’t be prouder: our small business growth platform Alice just closed a Series A round of funding. That’s a major accomplishment that I think is newsworthy in its own right. But, the headline is even better. We required a morality clause in the funding agreement, legally demanding repercussions in the event of racial, gender, or sexual orientation discrimination.

As we were pitching Alice for funding, Carolyn and I went back to the fundamentals of why we started Alice for small business owners in the first place. Our platform exists to break down barriers to growth for our community of more than 100,000 business owners — especially entrepreneurs who are women, veterans, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Whether that means access to tips and best practices or funding opportunities of which they otherwise wouldn’t be aware, our job is to help small business owners “get ‘er done” — whatever that means to them. For us, there is an immense responsibility in being a comprehensive resource that small business owners trust to help them grow their ventures. We’re always encouraging our owners to try new approaches and go big in every aspect of their development, and that includes pushing owners to challenge institutions that stand in the way of their successes.

One institution that has long stood in our way is the silent perpetuation of discriminatory and predatory behavior by influential investors. While we’ve seen a rise of so-called “Weinstein” clauses drafted in the wake of the watershed #MeToo movement two years ago, most of those cases refer to protections for investors against investee executives who have outstanding allegations.

This is an important step in the right direction of instilling accountability at all levels of business. But we were left asking ourselves, “what happens when an investor is the one #MeToo’d?”

We at Alice were troubled by the lack of legal consequences for key decision makers, from board members to venture capitalists, given the reputational harm their actions could inflict on the businesses they touch. So to protect the reputation we have worked so hard to build for Alice and to protect the business owners who seek us for help every day from across the globe, Carolyn and I decided to lead by example and take a stand with our own investors. We took the “Weinstein” clause and flipped it, giving our board members the agency to use corporate governance mechanisms to vote for removal of any board member in the event of a #MeToo event, racial discrimination, or sexual orientation discrimination incident. Simply put, Alice and its investors are not afraid to show you the door if your behavior doesn’t serve the best interests of our community of entrepreneurs.

Including this provision was crucial to our vision for the company as we continue to grow. It echoes our core values of inclusivity within our online business community. And, as our users seek venture capital, we want them to know that they have the right to stipulate what should be common sense legal protections while still securing the funding they need. We have provided the clause openly here so everyone can take advantage — and not have to pay the legal bills we did.

Making sure that this information is available to anyone who wants it is part of our commitment to ensuring that everyone in business gets a fair shake. To have other founders include morality clauses like ours in their funding agreements is as important to me as the fact that we did it ourselves. We must make this a trend.

Our morality clause is also important to us as we strive to improve the broader business community and the way we all seek funding. Small businesses represent nearly 95 percent of all U.S. employers and support the careers of more than 50 percent of Americans.

But, while the small business landscape is changing into a New Majority, with more women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ folks starting businesses every day, the demographic of venture capitalists is much slower to change. To date, 89 percent of venture capital deciders are still men, and of all the investments they make, only 2 percent of them are in female-owned businesses. Less than half of a percent of women who receive venture capital are Latina, and the representation is even worse for other minority communities of entrepreneurs.

By now, Carolyn (who is Latina herself) and I have learned that we have to make our presence known in a business world that has often excluded us. And as more #MeToo behaviors come to light across industries, we’ll be able to protect our businesses and entrepreneurs making lasting impacts on our communities.

As we look to the next chapter of Alice and its expansion into new markets in 2020, we will continue to share our unique funding story with hopes that other small businesses will be inspired and empowered to do the same.

Venture capitalists be warned: the New Majority of entrepreneurs is here to stay, and our morality clause is just the beginning of a new path to small business success.

I think Grandma Opal would be proud.

Former Google Pay execs raise $13.2M to build neo-banking platform for millennials in India

Two co-founders of Google Pay in India are building a neo-banking platform in the country — and they have already secured backing from three top VC funds.

Sujith Narayanan, a veteran payments executive who co-founded Google Pay in India (formerly known as Google Tez), said on Monday that his startup, epiFi, has raised $13.2 million in its Seed financial round led by Sequoia India and Ribbit Capital. The round valued epiFi at about $50 million.

David Velez, the founder of Brazil-based neo-banking giant Nubank, Kunal Shah, who is building his second payments startup CRED in India, and VC fund Hillhouse Capital also participated in the round.

The eight-month-old startup is working on a neo-banking platform that will focus on serving millennials in India, said Narayanan, in an interview with TechCrunch.

“When we were building Google Tez, we realized that a consumer’s financial journey extends beyond digital payments. They want insurance, lending, investment opportunities and multiple products,” he explained.

The idea, in part, is to also help users better understand how they are spending money, and guide them to make better investments and increase their savings, he said.

At this moment, it is unclear what the convergence of all of these features would look like. But Narayanan said epiFi will release an app in a few months.

Working with Narayanan on epiFi is Sumit Gwalani, who serves as the startup’s co-founder and chief product and technology officer. Gwalani previously worked as a director of product management at Google India and helped conceptualize Google Tez. In a joint interview, Gwalani said the startup currently has about two-dozen employees, some of whom have joined from Netflix, Flipkart, and PayPal.

Shailesh Lakhani, Managing Director of Sequoia Capital India, said some of the fundamental consumer banking products such as savings accounts haven’t seen true innovation in many years. “Their vision to reimagine consumer banking, by providing a modern banking product with epiFi, has the potential to bring a step function change in experience for digitally savvy consumers,” he said.

Cash dominates transactions in India today. But New Delhi’s move to invalidate most paper bills in circulation in late 2016 pushed tens of millions of Indians to explore payments app for the first time.

In recent years, scores of startups and Silicon Valley firms have stepped to help Indians pay digitally and secure a range of financial services. And all signs suggest that a significant number of people are now comfortable with mobile payments: More than 100 million users together made over 1 billion digital payments transaction in October last year — a milestone the nation has sustained in the months since.

A handful of startups are also attempting to address some of the challenges that small and medium sized businesses face. Bangalore-based Open, NiYo, and RazorPay provide a range of features such as corporate credit cardsa single dashboard to manage transactions and the ability to automate recurring payouts that traditional banks don’t currently offer. These platforms are also known as neo-bank or challenger banks or alternative banks. Interestingly, most neo-banking platforms in South Asia today serve startups and businesses — not individuals.