The Station: Audi punts on Level 3, Lyft layoffs and Nio’s $1 billion deal

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Hi readers. Welcome back to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the future (and present) of transportation. I’m your host Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch .

While COVID-related stay-at-home orders have been extended in places like the San Francisco Bay area, officials in other counties and states in the U.S. have decided to open up for business. The rest of us are watching and waiting to see how these two experiments play out.

These opposing approaches have managed to create even more tension in the United States. If politics didn’t divide us before, how and when to open amid a health pandemic is proving to be an effective wedge.

The “how” is as important, or even more so, than the “when.” What will life and business look like? Wuhan, China, a transportation and manufacturing metropolis of 11 million people and where COVID-19 started, offers a view into one approach. (The photo below shows a worker disinfecting a bus in Wuhan on April 30.)

China-wuhan-bus-covid

A staff member sprays disinfectant on a bus at a long-distance bus station in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on April 30, 2020, ahead of the Labor Day holiday which started May 1.

When those stay-at-home orders are finally lifted, returning to work won’t be quick or easy. Wuhan was placed on lockdown January 23. Wuhan officials eased outgoing travel restrictions April 8. While the strictest component of that lockdown has been lifted, many businesses remain closed. Didi didn’t reopened its ride-hailing services in the city until April 30.

In short, it’s going to be complex. Ford’s back-to-work playbook is a case in point. The plan includes a number of daily measures such as online health self-certifications completed before work every day, face masks and no-touch temperature scans upon arrival. But that’s just a sliver of what it will take. Check it out their complete playbook.

Here’s a friendly reminder to reach out and email me at [email protected] to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

I’ll alrighty folks, shall we dig in? Vamos. 

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility. Over at Lyft, the company laid off 982 employees and furloughed 288 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyft also permanently ceased scooter operations in Oakland, San Jose and Austin.

“We’re focusing our resources where we can have the biggest impact and best serve cities and riders,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to invest in our bike and scooter business, but have made the tough decision to shift resources away from three scooter markets and toward opportunities where we are set up for longer-term success.”

At Lime, the startup let go 13% of its staff while the very next day relaunching its electric scooters in Baltimore and Ogden, Utah.

“Almost overnight, our company went from being on the eve of accomplishing an unprecedented milestone — the first next-generation micromobility company to reach profitability — to one where we had to pause operations in 99% of our markets worldwide to support cities’ efforts at social distancing,” Lime CEO Brad Bao wrote in a note to employees.

Just one day after those layoffs, the company relaunched scooters in Baltimore to help support essential medical workers as well as in Ogden.

Uber is weighing its own layoffs. The Information reported that the company could cut up to 20% of its staff. That translates to more than 5,000 jobs. Those cuts could be announced in stages over the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Thuan Pham, who was hired as Uber’s chief technology officer by former CEO Travis Kalanick back in 2013, is leaving the company in three weeks, the ride-share giant revealed in an SEC filing.

— Megan Rose Dickey

Deal of the week

money the station

Chinese electric vehicle startup Nio secured a $1 billion investment from several state-owned companies in Hefei in return for agreeing to establish headquarters in the city’s economic development hotspot and giving up a stake in one of its business units.

The injection of capital comes from several investors, including Hefei City Construction and Investment Holding Group, CMG-SDIC Capital and Anhui Provincial Emerging Industry Investment Co.

Why deal of the week? The deal alleviates some concerns about Nio’s liquidity. It also marks the latest Chinese EV startup to turn to the state as private capital has shrunk.

There is no free lunch, however. The deal itself is complex and involves some asset shuffling. Nio is transferring its core businesses in China into a new company called Nio China. The investors will get a 24.1% stake in Nio China. The shareholding structure of the parent company is unchanged.

Other deals announced this week are below. Keep in mind that just because a deal is announced that doesn’t mean it closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fundraising rounds often close weeks and even months before they’re announced.

Otonomo, an automotive data services startup based in Israel, raised $46 million in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The company has a software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

KlearNow, a startup that has built a software platform to automate the customs clearance process, raised $16 million in a Series A funding round led by GreatPoint Ventures, with additional participation from Autotech Ventures, Argean Capital and Monta Vista Capital. Ashok Krishnamurthi, managing partner at GreatPoint Ventures, will join KlearNow’s board. Daniel Hoffer from Autotech Ventures is joining as a board observer.

Skycell, a Switzerland-based startup that builds hardware and operates a logistics network designed to transport pharmaceuticals has raised $62 million.

A merger between UK’s JustEat and the Netherlands’ Takeaway.com has been approved by regulators. The merged company announced that it had raised €700 million ($756 million) in new outside funding in the form of new shares and convertible bonds.

Cheetah, a San Francisco-based startup that provided a wholesale delivery service and has pivoted to selling to consumers during COVID-19, raised $36 million in Series B funding.

Innovation of the week

Computer vision company Eyesight Technologies has tweaked its driver monitoring system so it can detect driver distraction and drowsiness even while wearing a medical face mask.

This “innovation of the week” gets back to my opening remarks about “how” we get back to work. Face masks will likely be a part of our world for some time.

Driver monitoring systems, which are increasingly being used by commercial fleets, are trained to detect and monitor facial features of the driver. The system will take in data points like head pose, mouth, eyes and eyelids and use the gathered visual data to detect signs of drowsiness and distraction. If the sensor can’t read one or more of these features the system could fail to detect a drowsy truck driver or inattentive transit worker.

Driver Monitoring with mask

Eyesight Technologies

Eyesight Technologies says that its computer vision and AI algorithms have been trained to detect distraction and drowsiness even if a driver is wearing a mask and glasses.

“We are living in unprecedented times,” Eyesight Technologies CEO David Tolub said. “Without a concrete end date to the current situation, wearing medical masks may be a reality for the foreseeable future. Eyesight Technologies is forging ahead and adapting to provide a reliable solution to help guarantee safety even under less than ideal circumstances.”

Audi punts on Level 3

Audi has scrapped plans to roll out a Level 3 automated driving system in its A8 flagship sedan. Automotive News Europe broke the story.

The feature, which is branded Traffic Jam Pilot, theoretically allows the vehicle to operate on its own without the human driver keeping their eyes on the road. But it’s never been commercially deployed.

Traffic Jam Pilot was supposed to be in the latest-generation A8 that debuted in 2017. It’s now 2020. What happened? Regulations, or lack of them, have been the primary scapegoat. But it’s not quite the whole story.

TechCrunch reached out to Audi to dig into why? In short, the company told us, that it’s complicated. The lack of a legal framework has raised concerns about liability. To further complicate the problem, the A8 is now progressing through its generational life cycle. And Audi was faced with continuing to pour money into the feature to adapt it without promise of framework progressing.

Here’s a few tidbits from the folks at Audi.

On the legal framework:

As of now, there is no legal framework for Level 3 automated driving. Consistently it is not possible to homologate such function anywhere in the world in a series production car. It is still very challenging to plan the exact introduction scenarios for level 3 systems, as we continuously moving in an intensive interplay between the findings from ongoing testing and the requirements that legislators and approval authorities are now defining for conditional automated driving.

On development costs:

As these clarifications and safeguards continue to take time, we also monitor economic aspects in addition. This includes development costs, which are summing up continuously. Secondly, the remaining life of the determined target model A8 combined with the forecasted installation rate and the expected market greediness in the individual countries are playing an important role.

This has brought us to the following decision: We will not see the traffic jam pilot on the road with its originally planned level 3 series function in the current model generation of the Audi A8 because our luxury sedan has already gone through a substantial part of its model life cycle.

Audi’s belief in automated driving:

We still believe in the technology of automated driving and today we know better than almost anyone when it comes to the decisive technological key factors. During the development phase we continuously learned more and more technical “unknown unknowns” and developed approaches how to handle the fact, that there will appear more.

Together with the above mentioned dependencies concerning legislation and type approval, we believe that actually it is not the right moment to deliver the function to the customer. This is our attitude of responsibility.

How Audi is moving forward:

An important part of the truth, which the industry is now facing: development of automated driving is extremely complex and cost-intensive. Our aim more than ever before is to generate the greatest possible synergies.

Within the VW group we therefore have the best preconditions. We have consolidated our efforts to further develop level 3 automated driving in the Car.Software organization. This is a new organization within the Volkswagen Group .

Former Audi managers will be head of two out of the five domains within this new organization: Thomas Müller will manage the automated driving area, and Dr. Klaus Büttner will manage the Intelligent Body&Cockpit area. Together with the specialists coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Porsche, this ensures that the current expertise in this cross-brand organization is available for the greatest possible benefit to everyone in the Volkswagen Group.

Otonomo raises $46 million to expand its automotive data marketplace

New vehicles today can produce a treasure trove of data. Without the proper tools, that data will sit undisturbed, rendering it worthless.

A number of companies have sprung up to help automakers manage and use data generated from connected cars. Israeli startup Otonomo is one such player that jumped on the scene in 2015 with a cloud-based software platform that captures and anonymizes vehicle data so it can then be used to create apps to provide services such as electric vehicle management, subscription-based fueling, parking, mapping, usage-based insurance and emergency service.

The startup announced this week it has raised $46 million to take its automotive data platform further. The capital was raised in a Series C funding round that included investments from SK Holdings, Avis Budget Group and Alliance Ventures. Existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners also participated. Otonomo has raised $82 million, to date.

The funds will be used to help Otonomo scale its business, improve its products and help it remain competitive, according to the company. Otonomo is also aiming to expand into new markets, particularly South Korea and Japan.

“We now have the expanded resources needed to deliver on our vision of making car data as valuable as possible for the entire transportation ecosystem, while adhering to the strictest privacy and security standards,” Otonomo CEO and founder Ben Volkow said in a statement.

Otonomo’s pitch focuses on creating opportunities to monetize connected car data while keeping it safe from the moment it is captured. Once the data is securely collected, the platform modifies it so companies can use it to develop apps and services for fleets, smart cities and individual customers. The platform also enables GDPR, CCPA and other privacy regulation-compliant solutions using both personal and aggregate data.

Today, Otonomo’s platform takes in 2.6 billion data points a day from more than 20 million vehicles through partnerships with more than automakers, fleets and farm and construction manufacturers. Otonomo has more than 25 partnerships, a list that includes Daimler, BMW, Mitsubishi Motor Company and Avis Budget Group. The company said it’s preparing to bring on seven more customers.

That opportunity for Otonomo is growing based on forecasts, including one from SBD Automotive that predicts connected cars will account for more than 70% of cars sold in North American and European markets in 2020.

Bessemer’s Tess Hatch on the evolving aerospace market and COVID-19 adjustments

The aerospace market is evolving quickly and merging with other segments of tech, making it an exciting space for both startups and investors — but the complications of the global pandemic are being felt by both.

Bessemer Venture Partners investor Tess Hatch has been helping guide companies in their portfolio through these strange times, and has been rolling with the punches herself.

Hatch recently spoke to us about the advice she’s been offering startups, which companies are being hit hardest and where opportunity still lies in the frontier tech world. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Austerity measures and hard-hit hardware

TechCrunch: I’m interested in how the virus is affecting things in the investment world. Have you made any official accommodations, like a change of strategy, or putting off key investments, things like that?

Tess Hatch: Of course, we’re advising startups on things to do, like their employee safety, and implementing working from home, and tools and tips and tricks that can help that. Especially when it comes to hardware companies — it’s kind of hard to work from home when you’re manufacturing.

We’re advising them to really watch their burn, because their top line is not going to hit where they expected it to hit, like a double or triple revenue, it’ll maybe stay the same. If it increases even a little bit, they’re winning. We’re having these individual company-to-company conversations, just advising them on getting through, hopefully just these next couple of quarters, but it could be next year plus.

“We’re advising them to really watch their burn, because their top line is not going to hit where they expected it to. If it increases even a little bit, they’re winning.”
There is the question of new deals that we were looking at and this is a time where entrepreneurs will find amazing opportunities to solve the most pressing/immediate societal challenges and we are here to invest in them. We’re still taking new pitch meetings, new deals, we’re still busy, just doing it in the comfort of our pajamas rather than at the office.

So would you say that it has affected the frequency or the cadence of your investments, on a larger scale?

There’s really been like three partnership meetings since craziness happened. And the number of deals that we’ve talked about in the presentations we’ve had, those have remained the same, but ask that question in three more weeks, and I’m sure it I’ll have a better answer.

One of the funny things we’re talking about is that investors, one of their favorite things is to be able to predict how the future, at least the next year or two, is going to go. But this is one of the greatest times of uncertainty we’ve all lived through. So how are you approaching that when there’s so much that’s uncertain, but there’s so much that you need to know in order to effectively manage your portfolio, give advice and make sound investments?

Right now, it is shaking everything that we’ve believed in so strongly. However, we still are looking out, let’s say two to five-plus years. The real question is if this is going to be, with quarantining and lowering the curve, a little bit more under control by let’s say the summertime, or if this is going to be more than a couple of quarters, say a couple of years.

“It’s like you said, the uncertainty of just not knowing how long or how drastically this is affecting everything.”
One of the many things we are advising is for our companies that are able, raise a bit of extra capital now while the water is shut off, but there’s still a little bit trickling from the showerhead… I have not seen anything like this in my short career, but there are partners at the firm who have been here 20-plus years and while they have never seen this particular situation, I’ve been amazed by their ability to deal with these unique challenges and advise our companies on how to get through this. It’s like you said, the uncertainty of just not knowing how long or how drastically this is affecting everything.

I think that the hardware companies that you mentioned, those may have it the hardest because they involve so much travel, so much mailing back and forth of prototypes for testing. Is there any specific advice that you have for hardware companies that are trying to build a product right now?

Unfortunately, most of them have stopped all travel. We’re trying to do as much as we can virtually. The majority of them are smaller teams that are actually making, let’s say, a drone, or an autonomous robot, and they’re just staying six feet apart and taking all of the necessary precautions, doing every-other shifts. So if, say it’s a six-person team, three of them are working in the morning and three of them are working in the afternoon to increase the distance between all of them. The offices — especially where we’re building drones — are huge, so there’s tons of space for everyone.

The real issue though, is our customers aren’t showing up to work, you know? One of our companies, Impossible Aerospace, sells drones to police and fire departments. This is one of the best times to use drones to deliver emergency medical supplies, or even toilet paper and hand sanitizer to people in need. The ones that do have the drones are happy and they’re using them, but the ones that don’t, they’re so overwhelmed with everything else that’s going on.

There are always leads to follow up on, contracts to hammer out and negotiate, improvements you can make to your sales process. Is this something that there actually is a lot of, that even hardware companies can focus on in these downtimes?

At a high level, I’m sure there are people in the organization that can turn and do that. But think about a sales person or business development, there are certain ones that, their entire job is shaking hands or going to these events. I mean, think of marketing spend with no conferences this year, and all that upsets.

Aerospace between air and space

You wrote an article last week for us about a sort of neglected area of the new space industry, the stratosphere. I feel like people have been chasing this for a long time, but that the drawbacks of being in atmosphere are too much, especially when LEO [low Earth orbit] is getting so cheap. Do you really think that things like balloons and blimps are in the cards?

I agree with you that LEO is definitely becoming more accessible and cheaper and this market is shifting from price per kilogram to time to orbit, with launch vehicles like Rocket Lab’s coming to fruition.

However, there are still so many things one needs to do to modify their sensor for LEO. And with LEO, you’re only over the same area of interest for let’s say 15 minutes of a 90-minute orbit. And even then, the revisit rate over the same spot of Earth, it depends on the orbit, but it’s daily, weekly, sometimes more than weekly. The only way to stay over a single point in space is GEO [geosynchronous orbit], and that’s 36,000 kilometers versus 500 to 1,200 [for LEO].

Gaming-focused investment firm Bitkraft closes in on at least $140 million for its second fund

Esports, video games and the innovations that enable them now occupy a central space in the cultural and commercial fabric of the tech world.

For the investment firm Bitkraft Esports Ventures, the surge in interest means a vast opportunity to invest in the businesses that continue to reshape entertainment and develop technologies which have implications far beyond consoles and controllers.

Increasingly, investors are willing to come along for the ride. The firm, which launched its first fund in 2017 with a $40 million target, is close to wrapping up fundraising on a roughly $140 million new investment vehicle, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

Through a spokesperson, Bitkraft confirmed that over the course of 2019 it had invested $50 million into 25 investments across esports and digital entertainment, 21 of which were led by the firm.

The new, much larger, fund for Bitkraft is coming as the firm’s thesis begins to encompass technologies and services that extend far beyond gaming and esports — although they’re coming from a similar place.

Along with its new pool of capital, the firm has also picked up a new partner in Moritz Baier-Lentz, a former Vice President in the investment banking division of Goldman Sachs and the number one ranked esports player of Blizzard’s Diablo II PC game in 2003.

While at Goldman, Baier-Lentz worked on the $67 billion Dell acquisition of EMC and the $34 billion acquisition of RedHat by IBM.

The numbers in venture capital — and especially in gaming — aren’t quite at that scale, but there are increasingly big bets being made in and around the games industry as investors recognize its potential. There were roughly $2 billion worth of investments made into the esports industry in 2019, less than half of the whopping $4.5 billion which was invested the prior year, according to the Esports Observer.

As Ethan Kurzweil of Bessemer Venture Partners told TechCrunch last year:

“Gaming is now one of the largest forms of entertainment in the United States, with more than $100B+ spent yearly, surpassing other major mediums like television. Gaming is a new form of social network where you can spend time just hanging with friends/family even outside of the constructs of ‘winning the game.’”

Over $100 billion is nothing to sneer at in a growing category — especially as the definition of what qualifies as an esports investment expands to include ancillary industries and a broader thesis.

For Bitkraft, that means investments which are “born in Internet and gaming, but they have applications beyond that,” says Baier-Lentz. “What we really see on the broader level and what we think bout as a team is this emergence of synthetic reality. [That’s] where we see the future and the growth and the return for our investors.”

Bitkraft’s newest partner, Moritz Baier-Lentz

Baier-Lentz calls this synthetic reality an almost seamless merger of the physical and digital world. It encompasses technologies enabling virtual reality and augmented reality and the games and immersive or interactive stories that will be built around them. 

“Moritz shares our culture, our passion, and our ambition—and comes with massive investment experience from one of the world’s finest investment firms,” said Jens Hilgers, the founding general partner of BITKRAFT Esports Ventures, in a statement. “Furthermore, he is a true core gamer with a strong competitive nature, making him the perfect fit in our diverse global BITKRAFT team. With his presence in New York, we also expand our geographical coverage in one of today’s most exciting and upcoming cities for gaming and esports.”

It helps that, while at Goldman, Baier-Lentz helped develop the firm’s global esports and gaming practice. Every other day he was fielding calls around how to invest in the esports phenomenon from private clients and big corporations, he said.

Interestingly for an esports-focused investment firm, the one area where Bitkraft won’t invest is in Esports teams. instead the focus is on everything that can enable gaming. “We take a broader approach and we make investments in things that thrive on the backbone of a healthy esports industry,” said Baier-Lentz.

In addition to a slew of investments made into various game development studios, the company has also backed Spatial, which creates interactive audio environments; Network Next, a developer of private optimized high speed networks for gaming; and Lofelt, a haptic technology developers.

“Games are the driver of technological innovation and games have prepared us for human machine interaction,” says Baier-Lentz. “We see games and gaming content as the driver of a broader wave of synthetic reality. That would span gaming, sports, and interactive media. [But] we don’t only see it as entertainment… There are economic and social benefits here that are opened up once we transcend between the physical and the digital. I almost see it as the evolution of the internet.”

Where top VCs are investing in open source and dev tools (Part 2 of 2)

In part two of a survey that asks top VCs about exciting opportunities in open source and dev tools, we dig into responses from 10 leading open-source-focused investors at firms that span early to growth stage across software-specific firms, corporate venture arms and prominent generalist firms.

In the conclusion to our survey, we’ll hear from:

These responses have been edited for clarity and length.

All eyes are on the next liquidity event when it comes to space startups

At the FAA’s 23rd Annual Commercial Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC on Wednesday, a panel dedicated to the topic of trends in VC around space startups touched on public vs. private funding, the right kinds of space companies that should even be considering venture funding, and, perhaps most notably, the big L: Liquidity.

Moderator Tess Hatch, Vice President at Bessemer Venture Partners, addressed the topic in response to an audience question that noted while we’ve heard a lot about how much money will flow into space-related startups from the VC community, we haven’t actually et seen much in the way of liquidity events that prove out the validity of these investments.

“In 2008, a company called Skybox was created and a handful of years later Google acquired the company for $500 million,” Hatch said. “Every venture capitalist’s ears perked up and they thought ‘Hey, that’s pretty good ROI in a short amount of time – maybe the space thing is an investable area’ and then a ton of venture capital investments flooded into space startups, and all of these venture capitalists made one, or maybe two investments in the area. Since then, there have not been many — if any – liquidity events: Perhaps Virgin Galactic going public via the SPAC (special uprose vehicle) on the New York Stock Exchange late last year would be the second. So we’re still waiting; we’re still waiting for those exits, we are still waiting for companies to pave the path for the 400+ startups in the ecosystem to return our investment.”

Hatch added that she’s looking at a number of companies who have the potential to break this somewhat prolonged exit drought in 2020, including five who are either quite mature in terms of their development, naming SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Planet and Spire as all likely candidates to have some kind of liquidity event in 2020, with the mostly likely being an IPO.

Space as an industry was described to me recently as a ‘maturing’ startup market by Space Angels CEO Chad Anderson, by virtue of the distribution of activity in terms of the overall investment rounds in the sector. There is indeed a lot of activity with early stage companies and seed rounds, but the fact remains that there hasn’t been much in the way of exits, and it’s also worth pointing out that corporate VCs haven’t been as acquisitive in space as some of their consumer and enterprise technology counterparts.

The panel touched on a lot more apart from liquidity, which actually only came up towards the end of the discussion, which included panelists Astranis CEO and co-founder John Gedmark; Capella Space CEO and founder Payam Banazadeh and Rocket Lab VP of Global Commercial Launch Services Shane Fleming. Both Gedmark and Banazadeh addressed aspects of the risks and benefits of seeking VC as a space technology company.

“Not every space business is a venture-backable business,” said Banazadeh earlier in the conversation. “But there are a lot of space businesses that are specifically going after raising venture money, and that’s dangerous for everyone – because at the end of the day venture is looking at high risk, high return. The ‘high return’ comes from being able to get substantial amount of revenue in a market that’s big
enough for those revenues to be coming from. But if your idea is to go build, maybe, some very specific part in a satellite, then you have to make the case of why you’ll be able to make those returns for the investors, and in a lot of cases, that’s just not possible.”

Banazadeh also concedes that doing any kind of space technology development is expensive, and the money has to come from somewhere. Gedmark talked about one popular source, government funding and grants, and why that often isn’t as obviously a positive thing for startups as it might seem.

“Small government grants can be great, and obviously a fantastic source of non dilutive capital,” Gedmark said. “But there is a little bit of a trick there, or something to be aware of: I think people are often surprised how much time is spent in the early days of a startup refining the exact idea and the product, and if you’re not certain that you have the that product market fit […] then, the government grant can be extremely dangerous, because they will fund you to do something that is sort of similar to what to what you’re doing, but it really prevents you changing your approach later; you’re going to end up spending time executing on the specific project of the program manager on the government side and you’re executing on what they want.”

VC funds, on the other hand, come with the built-in expectation that you’re going to refine and potentially even change direction altogether, Gedmark says. Depending on the terms of the public funding you’re seeking, that flexibility may not be part of the arrangement, which ultimately could be more important than a bit of equity dilution.

LaunchDarkly CEO Edith Harbaugh explains why her company raised another $54M

This week, LaunchDarkly announced that it has raised another $54 million. Led by Bessemer Venture Partners and backed by the company’s existing investors, it brings the company’s total funding up to $130 million.

For the unfamiliar, LaunchDarkly builds a platform that allows companies to easily roll out new features to only certain customers, providing a dashboard for things like “canary launches” (pushing new stuff to a small group of users to make sure nothing breaks) or launching a feature only in select countries or territories. By productizing an increasingly popular development concept (“feature flagging”) and making it easier to toggle new stuff across different platforms and languages, the company is quickly finding customers in companies that would rather not spend time rolling their own solutions.

I spoke with CEO and co-founder Edith Harbaugh, who filled me in on where the idea for LaunchDarkly came from, how their product is being embraced by product managers and marketing teams and the company’s plans to expand with offices around the world. Here’s our chat, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.

Sisense nabs $100m at a $1B+ valuation for accessible big data business analytics

Sisense, an enterprise startup that that has built a business analytics business out of the premise of making big data as accessible as possible to users — whether it be through graphics on mobile or desktop apps, or spoken through Alexa — is announcing a big round of funding today and a large jump in valuation to underscore its traction. The company has picked up $100 million in a growth round of funding that catapults Sisense’s valuation to over $1 billion, funding that it plans to use to continue building out its tech, as well as for sales, marketing and development efforts.

For context, this is a huge jump: the company was valued at only around $325 million in 2016 when it raised a Series E, according to PitchBook. (It did not disclose valuation in 2018, when it raised a venture round of $80 million.) It now has some 2,000 customers, including Tinder, Philips, Nasdaq, and the Salvation Army.

This latest round is being led by the high-profile enterprise investor Insight Venture Partners, with Access Industries, Bessemer Venture Partners, Battery Ventures, DFJ Growth, and others also participating. The Access investment was made via Claltech in Israel and it seems that this led to some details of this getting leaked out as rumors in recent days. Insight is in the news today for another big deal: wearing its private equity hat, the firm acquired Veeam for $5 billion. (And that speaks to a particular kind of trajectory for enterprise companies that the firm backs: Veeam had already been a part of Insight’s venture portfolio.)

Mature enterprise startups proven their business cases are going to be an ongoing theme this year fundraising stories, and Sisense is part of that theme, with annual recurring revenues of over $100 million speaking to its stability and current strength. The company has also made some key acquisitions to boost its business, such as the acquisition of Periscope Data last year (coincidentally also for $100 million, I understand).

Its rise also speaks to a different kind of trend in the market: in the wider world of business intelligence, there is an increasing demand for more digestible data in order to better tap advances in data analytics to use it across organizations. This was also one of the big reasons why Salesforce gobbled up Tableau last year for a slightly higher price: $15.7 billion.

Sisense, bringing in both sleek end user products but also a strong theme of harnessing the latest developments in areas like machine learning and AI to crunch the data and order it in the first place, represents a smaller and more fleet of foot alternative for its customers. “We found a way to make accessing data extremely simple, mashing it together in a logical way and embedding it in every logical place,” explained CEO Amir Orad to us in 2018.

“We have enjoyed watching the Sisense momentum in the past 12 months, the traction from its customers as well as from industry leading analysts for the company’s cloud native platform and new AI capabilities. That coupled with seeing more traction and success with leading companies in our portfolio and outside, led us to want to continue and grow our relationship with the company and lead this funding round,” said Jeff Horing, Managing Director at Insight Venture Partners, in a statement.

To note, Access Industries is an interesting backer who might also potentially shape up to be strategic, given its ownership of Warner Music Group, Alibaba, Facebook, Square, Spotify, Deezer, Snap and Zalando.

“Given our investments in market leading companies across diverse industries, we realize the value in analytics and machine learning and we could not be more excited about Sisense’s trajectory and traction in the market,” added Claltech’s Daniel Shinar in a statement.

Los Angeles-based Luxury Presence raised $5.4 million for its real estate marketing services

Real estate is a big business in the sprawling city of Los Angeles and new technology tools to target the industry continue to attract investor attention.

The latest of these is Luxury Presence, which pitches digital marketing services to real estate agents and has raked in $5.4 million in financing to support the buildout of its services and sales teams to manage clients.

Previous investors Switch Ventures led the round, which included participation from new investors Bessemer Venture Partners and Toba Capital alongside previous investors Gerald Risk, Peter Kelly, Jonathan Erlich, and Blaine Vess.

“Our 2020 goal is to build a full digital marketing solution for real estate agents looking to build successful, lead-generating digital brands,” said Malte Kramer, the company’s chief executive, in a statement. “2019 was all about building the best real estate website platform in the sector and I’m so proud of what our team was able to accomplish. Our focus was on how to make beautiful, functional and lead-generating sites that were easily customizable to fit the agent’s needs and demands, and we did just that.”

According to estimates from Built in LA, there are roughly 127 companies, which have raised over $2.4 billion active in the real estate industry in Los Angeles. These companies range from co-working startups like Knotel or WeWork to companies focused on servicing the real estate industry (like Luxury Presence).

In all, the sector is growing quickly as venture investors look to find markets that were reluctant to embrace technology. The traditionally opaque world of high end real estate certainly applies.

 

A look at the top trends exciting NYC’s consumer VCs

To learn more about the next wave of consumer startup investment outside Silicon Valley, I’m speaking to leading B2C-focused investors in various hubs about the trends they’re excited about right now. 

Recently, I shared the responses from several London-based investors; today, we spoke to eight of New York’s top consumer VCs:

  • Rebecca Kaden, Partner at Union Square Ventures
  • David Tisch, Founding Partner at BoxGroup
  • Anu Duggal, Founding Partner at Female Founders Fund
  • Craig Shapiro, Partner at Collaborative Fund
  • Jeremy Levine, Partner at Bessemer
  • Beth Ferreira, Partner at Firstmark Capital
  • Graham Brown, Partner at Lerer Hippeau Ventures
  • Eric Reiner, Partner at Sinai Ventures
  • Chris Paik, Partner at Pace Capital

Consumer health and banking startups were recurring areas of interest, and there’s a sense that apps and product brands which provide a deeper sense of community are an untapped opportunity.

Rebecca Kaden, Partner at Union Square Ventures

At USV, we are focused on opportunities that broaden access by leveraging technology to increase value and decrease cost in big buckets of consumer spend. In doing so, we are looking for ways to make products and services previously available to a select segment available to many more. In particular, we have been investing in areas of consumer health where the delivery mechanism not only makes the care more convenient but also more affordable and higher quality; products and platforms in financial services that change the traditional underlying model to drive financial health for a mass customer; and opportunities that create new access to education both for kids and lifelong learners. 

Within each of these segments, I’ve been very interested in how new communities are forming inside products–users that come for a specific offering are forming allegiance and increasing engagement by interacting with other users. I think that is a trend we will only see accelerate.

David Tisch, Founding Partner at BoxGroup

People are bored on their phones, not of their phones. I am most excited to meet founders working on consumer apps that bring happiness and fun to a mass consumer audience, as I continue to believe we are in the early days of mobile and the app store is not dead.

These apps may look like a game, they may be a game, or they may be a new feed, but TikTok, Twitch, HQ, Yolo and other Snap app kit apps, Tinder and others have shown consumers want new apps, the barrier for adoption and retention is  just very high. All apps and games have a half-life, creating something with a very long one is really hard, but the demand is sitting on the phone scrolling thorough feeds, waiting for some new fun. We are excited about apps that allow people to interact with others in different ways, in new worlds, using new hardware, or new interfaces.

Anu Duggal, Founding Partner at Female Founders Fund

With the rise of the sober curious movement, we invested in Kin Euphorics, offering consumers a sexy option to an alcoholic drink, creating a social experience around a non-alcoholic beverage that doesn’t exist in the market today. With beer sales decreasing five years in a row, brands like Heineken are offering alcohol-free alternatives catering to this growing audience.

With the decline of religion, we have seen the rise of what we call the “rise of the alternate community.” Consumers are looking for ways to connect online and offline based on specific interests. Examples of this in our portfolio include The Wonder, a membership model for familyhood, Peanut, a social network for modern motherhood, and Co-Star, an astrology app.