Iota Biosciences raises $15M to produce in-body sensors smaller than a grain of rice

Fitness trackers and heart rate monitors are all well and good, but if you want to track activity inside the body, the solutions aren’t nearly as convenient. Iota Biosciences wants to change that with millimeter-wide sensors that can live more or less permanently in your body and transmit what they detect wirelessly, and a $15 million series A should put them well on their way.

The team emerged from research at UC Berkeley, where co-founders Jose Carmena and Michel Maharbiz were working on improving the state of microelectrodes. These devices are used all over medical and experimental science to monitor and stimulate nerves and muscle tissues. For instance, a microelectrode array in the brain might be able to help detect early signs of a seizure, and around the heart one could precisely test the rhythms of cardiac tissues.

But despite their name, microelectrodes aren’t really small. The tips, sure, but they’re often connected to larger machines, or battery-powered packs, and they can rarely stay in the body for more than a few weeks or months due to various complications associated with them.

Considering how far we’ve come in other sectors when it comes to miniaturization, manufacturing techniques, and power efficiency, Carmena and Maharbiz thought, why don’t we have something better?

“The idea at first was to have free floating motes in the brain with RF [radio frequency] powering them,” Carmena said. But they ran into a fundamental problem: RF radiation, because of its long wavelength, requires rather a large antenna to receive them. Much larger than was practical for devices meant to swim in the bloodstream.

“There was a meeting at which everything died, because we were like two orders of magnitude away from what we needed. The physics just weren’t there,” he recalled. “So were like, ‘I guess that’s it!’ ”

But some time after, Carmena had a ‘eureka’ moment — “as weird as it sounds, it occurred to me in a parking lot. You just think about it and all these things align.”

His revelation: ultrasound.

Power at the speed of sound

You’re probably familiar with ultrasound as a diagnostic tool, for imaging inside the body during pregnancy and the like — or possibly as a range-finding tool that “pings” nearby objects. There’s been a lot of focus on the venerable technology recently as technologists have found new applications for it.

In fact, a portable ultrasound company just won TechCrunch’s Startup Battlefield in Lagos:

Iota’s approach, however, has little to do with these traditional uses of the technology. Remember the principle that you have to have an antenna that’s a reasonable fraction of an emission’s wavelength in order to capture it? Well, ultrasound has a wavelength measured in microns — millionths of a meter.

So it can be captured — and captured very efficiently. That means an ultrasound antenna can easily catch enough waves to power a connected device.

Not only that, but as you might guess from its use in imaging, ultrasound goes right through us. Lots of radiation, including RF, gets absorbed by the charged, salty water that makes up much of the human body.

“Ultrasound doesn’t do that,” Maharbiz said. “You’re just jell-o — it goes right through you.”

The device they put together to take advantage of this is remarkably simple, and incredibly tiny. On one side is what’s called a piezoelectric crystal, something that transforms force — in this case, ultrasound — into electricity. In the middle is a tiny chip, and around the edge runs a set of electrodes.

It’s so small that it can be attached to a single nerve or muscle fiber. When the device is activated by a beam of ultrasound, voltage runs between the electrodes, and this minute current is affected by the electrical activity of the tissue. These slight changes are literally reflected in how the ultrasonic pulses bounce back, and the reader can derive electrophysiological voltage from those changes.

Basically the waves they send power the device and bounce back slightly changed, depending on what the nerve or muscle is doing. By sending a steady stream of pulses, the system collects a constant stream of precise monitoring data simply and non-invasively. (And yes, this has been demonstrated in in vivo.)

Contained inside non-reactive, implant-safe containers, these microscopic “motes” could be installed singly or by the dozen, doing everything from monitoring heart tissue to controlling a prosthesis. And because they can also deliver a voltage, they could conceivably be used for therapeutic purposes as well.

And to be clear, those purposes won’t be inside the brain. Although there’s no particular reason this tech wouldn’t work in the central nervous system, it would have to be smaller and testing would be much more complicated. The initial applications will all be in the peripheral nervous system.

At any rate, before any of that happens, they have to be approved by the FDA.

The long medtech road

As you might guess, this isn’t the kind of thing you can just invent and then start implanting all over the place. Implants, especially electronic ones, must undergo extreme scrutiny before being allowed to be used in even experimental treatment.

Fortunately for Iota, their devices have a lot of advantages over, say, a pacemaker with a radio-based data connection and 5-year battery. The only transmission involved is ultrasound, for one thing, and there are decades of studies showing the safety of using it.

“The FDA has well-defined limits for average and peak powers for the human body with ultrasound, and we’re nowhere near those frequencies or powers. This is very different,” explained Maharbiz. “There’s no exotic materials or techniques. As far as constant low-level ultrasound goes, the notion really is that it does nothing.”

And unlike a major device like a medication port, pump, stint, pacemaker, or even a long-term electrode, “installation” is straightforward and easily reversible.

It would be done laparoscopically, or through a tiny incision. said Carmena. “If it has to be taken out, it can be taken out, but it’s so minimally invasive and small and safe that we keep it,” he said.

These are all marks in Iota’s favor, but testing can’t be rushed. Although the groundwork for their devices was laid in 2013, the team has taken a great deal of time to advance the science to the point where it can be taken out of the lab to begin with.

In order to get it now to the point where they can propose human trials, Iota has raised $15 million in funding; the round was led by Horizons Ventures, Astellas, Bold Capital Parners, Ironfire, and Shanda. (The round was in May but only just announced.)

The A round should get the company from its current prototype phase to a point, perhaps some 18 months distant, when they have a production-ready version ready to present to the FDA — at which point more funding will probably be required to get through the subsequent years of testing.

But that’s the game in medtech, and all the investors know it. This could be a hugely disruptive technology in a number of fields, although at first the devices need to be approved for a single medical purpose (one Iota has decided on but can’t disclose yet).

It’s a long road, all right, but at the end of it is the fulfillment of a promise straight out of sci-fi. It may be years before you have microscopic, ultrasound-powered doodads swimming around inside you, but that future is well on its way.

Cap table management tool Carta valued at $800M with new funding

Startups supporting startups are blazing a new trail with support from venture capitalists.

Co-working spaces like The Wing and The Riveter raked in funding rounds this year, as did Brex, the provider of a corporate card built specifically for startups. Now Carta, which helps companies manage their cap tables, valuations, portfolio investments and equity plans, has announced an $80 million Series D at a valuation of $800 million. The company, formerly known as eShares, raised the capital from lead investors Meritech and Tribe Capital, with support from existing investors.

The round brings Carta’s total funding to $147.8 million. Its existing investors include Spark Capital, Menlo Ventures, Union Square Ventures and Social Capital, though the latter didn’t participate in the Series D funding. Tribe Capital, however, is a new venture capital firm launched by Arjun Sethi, who previously led Social Capital’s investment in Carta, Jonathan Hsu and Ted Maidenberg, a trio of former Social Capital partners who exited the VC firm amid its transition from a traditional VC fund to a technology holding company. Tribe is said to be in the process of raising its own $200 million debut fund.

Founded in 2012 by Henry Ward (pictured), the Palo Alto-based company plans to use the latest investment to develop their transfer agent and equity administration products and services to better support startups transitioning into public companies. It also will launch additional products for investors to collect data from their portfolio companies and to manage their back office.

“We’ve come this far by changing how ownership management works for private companies—popularizing electronic securities and cap table software, combined with audit-ready 409As,” Ward wrote in an announcement. “But our ambitions go far beyond supporting privately-held, venture-backed companies.”

Carta, which counts Robinhood, Slack, Wealthfront, Squarespace, Coinbase and more as customers, currently manages $500 billion in equity. This year, Carta expanded its headcount from 310 employees to 450 employees, launched board management and portfolio insights products and completed a study in partnership with #Angels that highlighted the major equity gap female startup employees are victim to.

The study, released in September, revealed that women own just 9 percent of founder and employee startup equity, despite making up 35 percent of startup equity-holding employees. On top of that, women account for 13 percent of startup founders, but just 6 percent of founder equity — or $0.39 on the dollar.

The 10 largest US venture rounds of 2018

Three U.S. companies raised more than $1 billion in just one funding round in 2018, a year in which total deal value for U.S. startups is expected to surpass $100 billion for the first time.

For the most part, it was the usual suspects, and yes, SoftBank was an accessory in many of these rounds. Here’s a look at the 10 largest venture rounds of 2018.

Epic Games: $1.25 billion

The video game Fortnite Battle Royale was the star of the year 2018; more than 200 million players worldwide are registered online. (Photo Illustration by Chesnot/Getty Images)

Given the absolute phenomenon Fortnite became in just one year from its original release, it was no surprise private investors wanted to put money into Epic Games, the company behind it. In October, Epic Games announced a whopping $1.25 billion round at $15 billion valuation from KKR, Iconiq Capital, Smash Ventures, Vulcan Capital, Kleiner Perkins and Lightspeed Venture Partners to continue growing its Fortnite empire. That game alone is expected to bring in $2 billion in revenue in 2018 and reports 200 million registered players — not too shabby.

Cary, N.C.-based Epic Games’ monstrous fundraise was a standout in a year when funding for gaming and esports startups really took off. According to Crunchbase, global venture investment in the industry increased nearly 75 percent, to $701 million in the first half of 2018. Given Epic’s round, Discord’s $150 million infusion of capital this week and several others since June, the second half of 2018 undoubtedly set major records in the space.

Uber: $1.2 billion

Travis Kalanick, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., speaks during the TiE Global Entrepreneurs Summit in New Delhi, India, on Friday, December 16, 2016. Kalanick said the company will introduce Uber Moto across India. Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg via Getty Images

One of the largest rounds of 2018 was also one of the first big financings of the year. To be fair, the negotiations behind Uber’s $1.2 billion SoftBank investment and much of the press coverage surrounding it came in 2017, but the deal officially closed in January. This deal was monumental for many reasons. First of all, it made Uber founder and former chief executive officer Travis Kalanick a billionaire — not just on paper — and it cemented SoftBank’s position as the ride-hailing giant’s largest shareholder.

The financing brought San Francisco-based Uber’s total raised to date to just over $20 billion at a valuation said to be around $72 billion. Of course, Uber has since privately filed for an initial public offering slated for the first quarter of 2019.

Juul Labs: $1.2 billion

Juul Labs, the maker of the popular e-cigarette brand that has recently come under fire from health officials over its popularity with young adults, plans to introduce a line of lower-nicotine pods. Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Juul, one of the buzziest companies of 2018, raised $1.2 billion from private investors Tiger Global, Fidelity and more in mid-2018. Then, this month, the developer of e-cigarettes popular among teenagers accepted a $12.8 billion investment from the makers of Marlboro that valued it at $38 billion. Not only has Juul created significant controversy surrounding the ethics, or lack thereof, of its core product and its marketing to the younger generation in a short time, but it has also accumulated value at a clip rarely seen before. Juul, for context, surpassed a $10 billion valuation just seven months after its first round of VC backing — that’s four times faster than Facebook.

2019 is poised to be an interesting year for San Francisco-based Juul as it navigates public scrutiny, regulations and the completion of its partnership with Altria Group, which, according to Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns, will “help accelerate [Juul’s] success switching adult smokers.”

Magic Leap: $963M

Magic Leap’s flagship product, the Magic Leap One AR headset, began shipping to consumers this year.

It wouldn’t be an end of the year round-up of the largest VC deals without any mention of Magic Leap, the extremely well-funded virtual reality company. Tucked away in Plantation, Fla., 8-year-old Magic Leap has closed round after round, raising more than $2 billion to develop its hardware and software. The key investors in this year’s big round, which valued the company at $6.3 billion, were Temasek and AT&T, which announced it would become the exclusive “wireless distributor” of Magic Leap products in the U.S. starting this summer. Magic Leap is also backed by Google, Alibaba and Axel Springer.

Not only did Magic Leap land one of the largest VC deals this year, but it also finally began shipping to consumers its flagship product, the Magic Leap One AR headset. That was a long time coming — years, in fact. So long, many doubted whether the buzzy headsets would ever see the light of day. Now, the headsets are available to buyers in 48 states, though it’s worth mentioning they cost more than two grand.

Instacart: $600M

Founder and CEO of Instacart Apoorva Mehta and moderator Megan Rose Dickey speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 at Pier 48 on September 14, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Instacart has a lofty goal of delivering groceries to every household in the U.S., and it needs a lot of cash to get there. The company has raised VC every year since it completed the Y Combinator startup accelerator in 2012, and 2018 was no different. In October, the service brought in $600 million at a $7.6 billion valuation in a round led by D1 Capital Partners. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company has raised $1.6 billion to date from Coatue Management, Thrive Capital, Canaan Partners, Andreessen Horowitz and several others.

Instacart CEO Apoorva Mehta told TechCrunch at the time that the startup didn’t really need the capital and that this was more of an “opportunistic” battle. The market is hot, after all, and Instacart has ambitious plans to scale and it has a fierce competitor in Amazon to take on. As for an IPO, Mehta said “it will be on the horizon.”

Katerra: $865M

SoftBank-backed Katerra says it’s brought in more than $1.3 billion in bookings for new construction ranging from residential to hospitality and student housing.

One of SoftBank’s first major bets of 2018 was on construction technology, with an $865 million investment in Katerra at a $3 billion valuation out of its Vision Fund. Katerra, a tech startup based out of Menlo Park, develops, designs and constructs buildings. At the time of its January fundraise, Katerra told TechCrunch it had brought in more than $1.3 billion in bookings for new construction ranging from residential to hospitality and student housing. Founded in 2015 by three former private equity barons, the company has raised a total of $1.1 billion to date from SoftBank, Foxconn, Greenoaks Capital and others.

In June, Katerra announced it would merge with KEF Infra, an offsite manufacturing technology specialist, and would begin operating in India and the Middle East markets.

Opendoor: $725M

Yet another SoftBank investment, San Francisco-based Opendoor is also backed by Fifth Wall Ventures, GV, Andreessen Horowitz and more.

Opendoor’s two big SoftBank-backed investments this year totaled $725 million, valuing the company at $2.5 billion. The deal gave SoftBank a minority stake in Opendoor, an online real estate marketplace, and put one of its five managing directors, Jeff Housenbold, on the company’s board of directors. The round brought Opendoor’s total funding to slightly more than $1 billion — most of which it acquired in 2018, a major year for the company. Founded in 2014, the San Francisco-based startup is also backed by Fifth Wall Ventures, GV, Andreessen Horowitz and more.

According to TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos, Housenbold had hoped to work with Opendoor co-founder and CEO Eric Wu for some time. “The minute he joined [SoftBank] he reached out to me and let me know … saying if there was an opportunity to work together, to reach out to him,” Wu said.

Lyft: $600M

Uber competitor Lyft expanded aggressively in 2018, raised hundreds of millions in additional venture capital funding, and filed confidentially to go public.

Lyft managed to stay quite busy this year. Not only did the ridesharing company raise a $600 million round at a $15.1 billion valuation, it also acquired bike-share operator Motivate and filed confidentially to go public. Founded in 2012 by Logan Green and John Zimmer, the company has long competed with Uber, and will continue to do so as the pair race to the public markets in early-2019. Lyft, much smaller than Uber and only active in the U.S. and Canada, has raised nearly $5 billion in venture backing from KKR, Mayfield, Didi Chuxing, Floodgate and others.

San Francisco-based Lyft has spent much of the last two years expanding rapidly across the U.S. market, as well as pursuing its autonomous vehicle ambitions.

Automation Anywhere: $550M

Automation Anywhere raised a monstrous $550 million Series A in 2018, with support from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

The only surprise to make this list is Automation Anywhere, a 15-year-old provider of robotic process automation. The company raised a total of $550 million in Series A funding, a large chunk of which came from the SoftBank Vision Fund, as well as NEA, General Atlantic and Goldman Sachs. The round valued Automation Anywhere at $2.6 billion. According to PitchBook, this was the first round of institutional backing for the San Jose, Calif.-based company.

In a conversation with TechCrunch, Automation Anywhere CEO Mihir Shukla said they were attracted to SoftBank because of Masayoshi So — the CEO and founder of SoftBank: “[He} has a vision and he is investing in foundational platforms that will change how we work and travel. We share that vision.”

Peloton: $500M

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – SEPTEMBER 06: Peloton Co-Founder/CEO John Foley speaks onstage during Day 2 of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018 at Moscone Center on September 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

Peloton’s growth exploded in 2018 as it launched its $4,000 treadmill, doubled down on original fitness streaming content and raised an additional $500 million in equity funding at a $5 billion valuation. The New York-based startup, often referred to as the “Netflix of fitness,” has raised nearly $1 billion in venture capital funding in the six years since it was founded by John Foley. It’s backed by  L Catterton, True Ventures, Tiger Global and others.

It’s likely Peloton will take the public markets plunge in 2019 much like Uber and Lyft. Foley earlier this year told The Wall Street Journal that though he doesn’t have any concrete plans, 2019 “makes a lot of sense” for its stock market debut.

Alphabet spins off moonshot project Malta with backing from Gates’s BEV fund

Malta, the renewable energy storage project born in Alphabet’s moonshot factory X, is now on its own and flush with $26 million from a Series A funding round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures .

Concord New Energy Group and Alfa Laval also invested in the round.

Project Malta launched last year in Alphabet’s X (formerly Google X) with an aim to build energy storage facilities that can support full-scale power grids. The independent company spun out of Alphabet is now called Malta Inc.

Malta Inc has developed a system designed to keep power generated from renewable energy or fossil fuels in reserve for longer than lithium-ion batteries. The electro-thermal storage system first captures energy generated from wind, solar, or fossil generators on the grid. The collected electricity drives a heat pump, which converts the electrical energy into thermal energy. The heat is stored in molten salt, while the cold is stored in a chilled antifreeze liquid. A heat engine is used to convert the energy back to electricity for the grid when it’s needed.

The system can store electricity for days or even weeks, Malta says.

Malta is going to use the funds to work with industry partners to turn the detailed designs developed and refined at X into industrial-grade machinery for its first pilot system.

BEV, the lead investor in Malta’s Series A round, was created in 2016 by the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, an investor group that includes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, John Doerr, chairman of venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, and SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner.

LetsTransport raises $13.5M to digitize and improve last mile logistics in India

India’s B2B supply chain is slowly shifting into the digital era. Following a $23 million investment for Moglix, which helps bring business and manufacturing procurement online, LetsTransport, a startup that brings increased efficiency to logistics and business transportation, has raised $13.5 million for growth.

Founded in 2015 by IIT Kharagpur graduates Pushkar Singh, Sudarshan Ravi and Ankit Parasher, Bangalore-based LetsTransport has surface level comparisons with Uber and other on-demand services since it pairs companies with trucks to carry out their last mile distribution.

But that is really a cosmetic comparison. LetsTransport offers a range of product modules to manage fleets, including intelligent routing. Then, on the business side, its unit economic are far superior to Uber and co since the business customers it caters are not cost-motivated and will happily pay for a consistent service with guarantees.

For the truck operations, the service is designed to increase their average utility and get more jobs completed in quicker times. Singh, the company’s CEO, told TechCrunch in an interview that operating partners are typically seeing 40 percent efficiency improvements with a 30 percent reduction in distribution cost for the brands and retailers on the other side. Routing, he explained, is currently “done primitively by the driver” which is where LetsTransport tries to add value.

The service currently operates in seven cities in India and it has been used by big name customers like Coca-Cola, Amazon, Metro Cash & Carry and Big Bazaar, while some 20,000 truckers have carried out jobs on its platform to date. To help sweeten its appeal, the company goes beyond providing work to help trucking operators with insurance, after sale care and other maintenance services.

This Series B funding round was led by Bertelsmann India Investments with participation from China’s Fosun International and others. The company’s other investors including Japan duo GMO Venture Partners and Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Venture Capital, as well as Rebright Partners and NB Ventures.

Singh told TechCrunch that the capital will go towards expanding to twenty new cities in tier-two India as well as looking into global opportunities.

“We’re trying to consolidate our position in India and [are] looking at products that can be offered internationally,” he said, explaining that markets in Southeast Asia and Africa could be in the pipeline. “The needs of an emerging market are quite similar… it needs a little localization but we have a great product.”

In particular, he added, LetsTransport has received expansion requests from its existing client base which would help when it comes to new launches. For now, though, the plan is to test specific modules in new markets before bringing other, more significant operational aspects of the business overseas.

Those modules could include the company’s smart routing system, which companies can deploy for their own transportation solutions. That’s a good way to reach new customers and develop a moat around those who use its marketplace business, too.

Pointing out that 14 percent of India’s GDP is spent on logistics versus 7.5 percent in the U.S. — Singh is bullish that there is plenty of scope to digitize the system and make significant improvements to efficiencies.

“It’s a very large industry that’s ripe for disruption,” he said. “There are inefficiencies that should dead by now.”

How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching to trigger the questions, “Whats that? Can I try?”

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

Crowdfunded developer of space sim Star Citizen takes on $46M in funding at nearly $500M valuation

The story of the game Star Citizen and Cloud Imperium, the company developing it, is almost too ludicrous to believe: a crowdfunding effort to create a space sim of unparalleled size and realism, raising hundreds of millions, with backers paying thousands for ships and gear in a game that’s years from release. Yet it’s real enough that it just pulled in $42 million in private funding to help bring it closer to release.

Star Citizen began as the brainchild of Chris Roberts, architect of the Wing Commander series and other well-received space games. His idea was to crowdfund the team’s next game, and did so in 2012; the money started rolling in, and it never really stopped. Nor has the game ceased to grow in its ambitions, adding things like entire planets to the lineup that seem, on their face, somewhat insane.

There’s no shortage of histories of the game and its developers out there, so for our purposes let it suffice to say that over the last six years the company has raised $211 million, the vast majority of which comes from gamers “pledging” anywhere from a few bucks to thousands of dollars for all manner of things related to the title. Early access to builds, exclusive ships, testing new content, etc.

A huge amount of work has been done on the game, so this isn’t just a colossal con, though there are plenty who think the game, and its first-person shooter counterpart Squadron 42, can’t possibly ever fulfill its ambitions and justify the money people have put into it.

That doesn’t seem to be the opinion of Clive Calder, founder of Zomba and producer in a variety of entertainment formats, whom Roberts met during a clandestine campaign to solicit funding.

Roberts, who writes the story in one of his candid messages to the project’s fanbase, had decided a while back that he didn’t want to use pledged funds for marketing purposes — at least not the kind of marketing blitz AAA games tend to require for a successful global release. So he went looking for investment, and found Calder, with whom he “got on like a house on fire.”

Calder’s family office agreed to invest $46 million for a 10 percent stake in Cloud Imperium, which all told puts it near a half-billion valuation. One may very well question the sanity of such a valuation for a company that has not yet shipped an actual product — working prototypes, sure, but not a completed game — but hell, at least they’re making something people are excited about. That’s got to be worth a couple bucks.

Cloud Imperium gains two new board members from outside, though Roberts, who commands the kind of loyalty that only decades in an industry can create, was quick to point out that “control of the company and the board still firmly stays with myself as Chairman, CEO and majority shareholder.”

In another act of not exactly radical but not legally required transparency, the company also posted an outline of the company’s financials over the last 6 years. Unsurprisingly, the company has been investing most of its cash into game development in the form of salaries, contracts, and overhead; a non-trivial amount has gone towards “publishing operations, community, events and marketing,” which with a game as community-focused as Star Citizen is not surprising.

The company has grown steadily, adding a hundred people a year or so to a present size of 464 — which is the kind of size you’d expect on a AAA game like Assassin’s Creed or Red Dead Redemption. Even more would be added on as temporary artists, actors, and so on.

I’m sure it has escaped no one that pledges appear to have peaked, though if they remain steady then the company can clearly the company will have enough to continue operations if it doesn’t expand. But one does also see perhaps a secondary motive in seeking investment from outside the community. At some point people are going to want a game.

To that end Squadron 42, at least, is scheduled for release in Q2 2020 — though backers and critics will both chuckle a little at the idea that Cloud Imperium will be able to hit those goals. The games, infamously, were originally slated for release long ago. But the scope of the project has grown since its conception and although some no doubt would rather be playing the completed game today, they may very well find that good things come to those who wait. And wait. And wait…

Bounce raises $1.2M to tap local retailers for short-term storage

If you’ve ever found yourself lugging a big suitcase from meeting to meeting, a startup called Bounce could make your life easier. Using Bounce, you’ll be able to pay for short-term storage at hotels, dry cleaners and other local businesses.

The San Francisco-based startup is announcing that it has raised $1.2 million in seed funding from investors including Structured Capital managing partner Jillian Manus, Seabed VC, Airbnb general counsel Rob Chesnut and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Hyatt.

CEO Cody Candee (pictured above with his co-founder and CTO Aleksander Rendtslev) said he’s actually not someone who owns a lot of stuff himself, but he realized that “people are constantly planning their days and planning their lives around the things that they own,” whether that’s running home to drop something off or heading straight to your hotel from the airport because you need to get rid of your luggage.

So Bounce has already signed up more than 100 locations across New York, San Francisco, Washington, DC and Chicago, and it says they’ve been used to store tens of thousands of bags. You currently browse these locations through the Bounce website, but Candee said an iOS app launch is imminent.BounceApparently Bounce vets its locations, partly to ensure that they have secure storage areas and that their posted store hours are accurate — so that you don’t rush to the store to pick something up before closing, only to discover that everyone left early. Candee added that the most common use cases include travelers who have checked out of their hotels, people attending events (I once tried to carry my gym bag into Madison Square Garden and I will never do that again) and salespeople who are hopping from meeting to meeting.

There are other companies that appear to have a similar idea — for example, Vertoe was part of winter class at Techstars NYC — but Candee said that competitors are mostly “attacking just the luggage storage space,” which he suggested is “relatively easy to build.”

In contrast, he said, “The way we see it is, we’re really building a tech platform and basically thinking about these broader use cases.” In fact, he said Bounce is already testing out a system where items are transported by local couriers between different storage locations.

“We’re thinking about what could be built on top of that platform,” Candee said. “A drycleaner could come on our platform and they could basically say, ‘Hey, drop your clothes off’ and then Bounce it back to wherever that user is.”

SoftBank’s Vision Fund is preparing to invest $1 billion in Grab

SoftBank’s Vision Fund is set to continue its recent spree of investments in Asian tech unicorns. The mega fund — which is targeted at $100 billion — is planning to invest upwards of $1 billion into Southeast Asia’s ride-hailing leader Grab, two sources with knowledge of the plan told TechCrunch. The investment could reach as much as $1.5 billion, one source added.

A SoftBank representative did not respond to a request for comment. Grab declined to comment.

The Vision Fund has made significant investments in three billion-dollar Asian companies in recent months. That includes backing India’s OYO as part of a $1 billion round (which included money from Grab) in September, writing a $2 billion check for Korea’s Coupang in November and co-leading a $1.2 billion round for Tokopedia in Indonesia alongside Alibaba earlier this month.

There is a pattern that SoftBank appears to be following here.

In all three cases, the Japanese company was an existing investor and, having transferred its stakes to the Vision Fund, it then doubled down and invested again via the Vision Fund itself. That’s also the plan for this Grab deal, TechCrunch understands.

SoftBank’s most recent financial report, filed in November, explains that it plans to move its stakes in ride-hailing firms Uber, China’s Didi, India’s Ola and Grab over to the Vision Fund. But that hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t clear when it will.

“The Company expects that the necessary procedures will be made in the future to obtain applicable consent from limited partners of the Fund and regulatory approvals for the transfer,” it explained in the report, which doesn’t include a projected timeframe.

One source told TechCrunch that the investment in Grab is contingent on that equity transfer being made, as was the case with Tokopedia and Coupang, which saw SoftBank-owned stakes transferred to the fund in Q3 of this year.

Grab CEO and co-founder Anthony Tan [Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

While we don’t know how long that wait will be, Grab is hardly short on cash. The Singapore-based company is putting the final touches to its Series H fund which is focused on raising a total of $3 billion. It has already received significant contributions from Toyota, Microsoft, Yamaha Motors, Booking Holdings and a range of institutional investors.

Grab operates across eight markets in Southeast Asia, where it claims over 130 million downloads and more than 2.5 billion completed rides to date. The company acquired Uber’s business earlier this year in a deal that saw the U.S. company pick up a 27.5 percent stake in Grab and turn their rivalry into a partnership. The merger deal, however, was criticized by regulators and, in Singapore, the pair were fined a total of $9.5 million for violating anti-competition laws.

Grab is Southeast Asia’s highest-valued tech startup, having commanded an $11 billion valuation through this Series H round. It isn’t clear how much that figure will increase if, as and when this Vision Fund investment closes. The company has raised around $6.8 billion to date from investors, according to data from Crunchbase.

Juul Labs gets $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro maker Altria Group

After a long year fighting underage use of its products, Juul Labs has today struck a deal with Altria Group, the owners of Philip Morris USA and makers of Marlboro cigarettes.

The deal values Juul at $38 billion, according to Bloomberg, and injects the company with a fresh $12.8 billion in exchange for a 35 percent stake in Juul Labs.

Here’s what Juul Labs CEO Kevin Burns had to say in a prepared statement:

We understand the controversy and skepticism that comes with an affiliation and partnership with the largest tobacco company in the US. We were skeptical as well. But over the course of the last several months we were convinced by actions, not words, that in fact this partnership could help accelerate our success switching adult smokers. We understand the doubt. We doubted as well.

He goes on to explain the strict criteria Juul Labs had for a potential investor, particularly one from the Big Tobacco space. For one, Altria entered into a standstill agreement that limits the company’s ownership in Juul to 35 percent. Altria must also use its database and its distribution network to get the message of Juul out to current smokers.

For the past year, many have seen Juul as a dangerous toy for teenagers. In November, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced new measures for the e-cig industry meant to keep the products out of the hands of teens. One of those measures includes restricting the sale of flavored non-combustible tobacco products beyond the usual cigarette flavors of tobacco and menthol.

But after nearly a year of playing defense, this new deal marks a bit of an offensive push from Juul Labs. The company has always stressed that its main goal is to give smokers a meaningful alternative to combustible cigarettes. Partnering with Big Tobacco may not seem like the best way to do that, optically speaking. But Altria has agreed to a few measures that would get information about Juul into the hands of actual smokers, including:

  • providing Juul with access to its retail shelf space, meaning that Juul’s tobacco and menthol products will be merchandized right alongside Altria combustible cigarettes
  • Altria will include direct communications about Juul to adult smokers through cigarette pack inserts and mailings via Altria companies’ databases
  • Altria will support Juul via its logistics and distribution networks, as well as its sales team which works with more than 230,000 retail locations

In the release, Altria said that part of the reason for the investment is simply that the organization understands change is coming to the tobacco industry.

Howard Willard, Altria’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, had this to say in a prepared statement:

We are taking significant action to prepare for a future where adult smokers overwhelmingly choose non-combustible products over cigarettes by investing $12.8 billion in JUUL, a world leader in switching adult smokers. We have long said that providing adult smokers with superior, satisfying products with the potential to reduce harm is the best way to achieve tobacco harm reduction. Through JUUL, we are making the biggest investment in our history to achieve that goal. We strongly believe that working with JUUL to accelerate its mission will have long-term benefits for adult smokers and our shareholders.

Altria has made a few big moves lately, including acquiring a 45 percent stake in cannabis company Cronos earlier this month. The company also announced this month that it would discontinue its own e-cig products, including all MarkTen and Green Smoke e-vapor products, and VERVE oral nicotine products.

“This decision is based upon the current and expected financial performance of these products, coupled with regulatory restrictions that burden Altria’s ability to quickly improve these products,” read the press release. “The company will refocus its resources on more compelling reduced-risk tobacco product opportunities.”

Now we know that those opportunities look like an extra-long thumb drive called Juul.