Walnut wants to crack open flexibility for healthcare bills

Healthcare insurance, if you’re lucky to have it, only covers a subset of conditions in the United States. As a result, patients can often get burdened with horror story charges, like huge deductibles, out-of-network costs and expensive co-pays. So for the uninsured and insured alike, innovative ways of managing big bills are in high demand — especially as uncertainty remains around how COVID-19 and long-haul symptoms will be handled by patients and payers.

Walnut, founded by Roshan Patel, is a point-of-sale lending company with a healthcare twist. Walnut uses a “buy now, pay later” model, popularized by Affirm and Klarna, to help patients pay for healthcare over a period of time, instead of in one $3,000 chunk. Walnut works with healthcare providers so that a patient’s bill can be paid back through $100-a-month increments for 30 months, instead of one aggressive credit card swipe.

A patient using Walnut to pay healthcare bills. Image Credits: Walnut

It’s a sweet deal, but Patel added one more detail that he thinks makes Walnut stand out: The startup doesn’t charge any interest or fees to consumers.

“Almost every ‘buy now, pay later’ company in e-commerce charges interest or fees, and every personal loan provider charges interest or fees, but we do not,” he said. “And that’s really important to me, not making healthcare any more expensive than it already is. It’s a very patient-friendly product.”

Companies that use the buy now, pay later model with zero interest or fees need to make revenue somehow, and in Walnut’s case it is by charging healthcare providers a percentage of each sale or transaction.

If a provider’s collection rate for an out-of-pocket is 50%, Walnut would go to them and say “give us a 40% discount, and we’ll guarantee the cash for you upfront.” The startup will take the risk, and then the provider is able to make 60% of the collection rate.

Now, ideally, a provider would want to get 100% of payments they are owed, but that is wishful thinking. Patel explained that a large number of bills go unpaid due to bankruptcies or a default on payments (the average collections rate for hospitals out of pocket is less than 20%). Because of this, a company like Walnut has room to offer at least some stable upfront cash to hospitals, even if it ends up being 60% of overall bills versus 100%.

The company uses “extensive underwriting models” to figure out if a patient should qualify for a loan. Patel says that the startup goes beyond using credit score, which he describes as an “outdated metric”, and instead looks at thousands of data points from different providers, from side hustle income to spending habits on things like groceries and bills.

Walnut’s biggest challenge, says Patel, is to underwrite the population and pay the healthcare provider upfront in cash. It then collects from the patient on the back end, which comes with its own amount of risk.

“To be able to take on that risk for patients that are less credit-worthy is a very challenging problem, and I don’t think it’s really solved yet in healthcare,” he said.

The startup is starting by working with small private practices of one to five physicians that focus on specialties like dentistry, dermatology and fertility.

A big part of Walnut’s success will be determined by if it can attract people that truly need flexible financing options. For example, the company doesn’t have any hospitals as a partner yet, which would tap a larger group of patients that likely need flexible financing options the most. Right now, “the people who get elective-care surgery are the ones that can afford it.”

But Patel doesn’t see this as a disconnect; instead, he sees it as an opportunity to widen access to elective medical care to more people.

“I talked to a person last week who has no teeth and wants dentures but it costs $6,000,” he said. “That person should be able to afford it, and we enabled them to pay $100 a month for it.”

Walnut’s two biggest customer groups are the uninsured (people who have lost their jobs from COVID-19), and consumers who have high deductible plans.

Walnut isn’t the first. PrimaHealth Credit, Walnut’s closest competitor, offers point-of-sale lending procedures for elective medical procedures. Think surgeries like cataract work or dental work. The company said the service is currently available in Arizona, California, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, and will be expanded to all 50 states this year. Walnut, comparatively, is mostly focused on the East Coast and plans to expand nationwide by the end of this year.

PrimaHealth’s average loan size is $1,800, and Walnut’s average loan size is $5,000.

The company is currently piloting with a handful of healthcare providers in dermatology, dentistry and fertility. It has had more than 500 patient loan applications, totaling over $4.6 million in application volume year-to-date. Patel says that Walnut only accepted a fraction of these applications, but declined to share what percent of money it has lent so far. As Walnut refines its model, it might be able to cover other categories.

Up until this point, Walnut has been lending off of its own balance sheet. In order to truly scale, it will need to get a new source of capital — either a credit line, debt financing round or venture capital — to offer more loans. Patel says that the startup is in talks with banks, and turned down a debt offer due to size and rate.

Venture capital seems to be the solution for now: The startup announced that it has raised a $3.6 million seed round from investors including Gradient Ventures, Afore Capital, 2048 Ventures, Supernode Ventures, TA Ventures, Polymath Capital, Tack Ventures, Awesome People Ventures, Newark Ventures and NKM Capital. Angels include the CEOs of Giphy and PillPack, and the CTO of Rampm Financial as well as an NFL coach. The company is also a part of Plaid’s inaugural accelerator.

“I don’t want to be yet another startup trying to offer you an undifferentiated insurance plan,” Patel said.

Former Asana employees want to take on Discord with a positive platform for creator communities

In a creator-economy world, if you’re only as good as your last YouTube video, then your next YouTube video had better be bigger and louder than the last.

Vibely, a new startup co-founded by Asana alumni Teri Yu and Theresa Lee, wants to turn the constant, and often exhausting, beast of content creation on its head. The startup has created a premium, creator-controlled community platform that allows fans to gather and be monetized in new ways, beyond what is possible on YouTube or TikTok.

The core of Vibely, and what the co-founders hope will keep users coming back, is the ability to let any creator make a challenge for their fans to enjoy. For example, a creator whose brand evokes thoughtfulness could ask fans to sketch out their personal growth goals or take action around a new year’s resolution everyday. Or a fitness influencer could motivate fans to work out for a sprint of days.

“Most people in the creator economy are thinking about how to immediately monetize and get that instant gratification of like money here,” Yu said, which is why creators sell merchandise or hop on Cameo. “We’re focusing on long-term strategic communities.” Yu describes her startup’s shift as a mindset change, from a linear relationship between creators and fans to a multi-directional relationship between fans, superfans, new fans and creators.

Image Credits: Vibely

Vibely’s pitch is two-fold. For fans, the platform gives them a chance to chat with other fans from around the world. It also lets fans participate in community challenges and have a place to plan virtual hangouts over shared love for makeup or dance. The startup helps creators simultaneously, by giving them a one-stop shop to announce plans, do call to actions and create an ambassador program. It lets the “creator scale their time and have a multi-directional relationship with the community under or beneath them.”

Notably, Vibely is trying to be different from Patreon or OnlyFans, which is basically paywalled content for fans. Vibely doesn’t need creators to post more content, it just needs them to pop into a premium community and interact with fans in a meaningful way.

The startup is formalizing a sporadic daily occurrence: When a creator posts content, their comment sections in YouTube, Instagram and TikTok light up with fans discussing every detail you can imagine, from a suggestive hair flip to if that background poster has a hidden message. Creators often pop in to respond to a spicy thread or a random compliment, which incentivizes fans to keep swarming the content section.

The startup has spent little on customer acquisition cost and relied heavily on word of mouth. In December, Vibely launched a part-in-person, part-virtual creator house to pair top TikTok creators with their followers, generating some buzz. In 2020, Vibely had more than 600 communities with 392,000 messages sent and 37,000 challenges completed. Creators include Lavendaire, with 1.3 million YouTube subscribers and Rowena Tsai, who has 520,000 subscribers.

Yu says that there is one day where Kim Kardashian might have a community on the platform, but the main “bread and butter” of Vibely is searching for creators who represent a true interest, value or belief system. This can be a book influencer or a religious creator, for example.

“[Creators] are controlling their own destiny,” Yu said. “On Instagram or Facebook, you might create content but the algorithm decides at the end of the day whether or not your audience sees it. With Vibely, they have 100% control since this is their community.” The startup is planning to make money through membership dues and in-app mechanics like social currencies and rewards.

Vibely’s moonshot goal is to be a more positive, and supportive, Discord, a platform used by gamer communities across the world. So far, Yu says that less than .1% of Vibely users have been flagged by other users, although notably would not share total user numbers. There is also an ambassador program that appoints a user to oversee a community, as well as a global community manager on the team.

“The ceiling of where [Discord] can support is really only going to be gamers,” she said. “But creators want to protect their brand right now and make sure people have a positive experience,” so they are looking for another place to set up.

Image Credits: Vibely

While moderation is apparently going well so far, Vibely will most certainly encounter problems as more and more users join its platform. In the world of challenges, craze and hype led by fanatics could potentially become harmful if someone takes it too far. While Vibely aims to be a judgement-free zone for people to connect around the world, scale has a uniquely pessimistic way of forking that from time to time. Some consumer apps have responded to this truth by aggressively hiring on-staff moderators, but that too can become grueling work.

To hit the ground running, Vibely announced today that it has raised $2 million in seed financing from backers including Steve Chen, the co-founder of YouTube; Justin Rosenstein, the co-founder of Asana and co-creator of Netflix’s “Social Dilemma” documentary; Scott Heiferman, the co-founder of Meetup; Turner Novak, formerly an investor at Gelt, and more.

 

The five great reasons to attend TechCrunch’s Enterprise show Sept. 5 in SF

The vast enterprise tech category is Silicon Valley’s richest, and today it’s poised to change faster than ever before. That’s probably the biggest reason to come to TechCrunch’s first-ever show focused entirely on enterprise. But here are five more reasons to commit to joining TechCrunch’s editors on September 5 at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for an outstanding day (agenda here) addressing the tech tsunami sweeping through enterprise. 

#1 Artificial Intelligence.
At once the most consequential and most hyped technology, no one doubts that AI will change business software and increase productivity like few if any, technologies before it. To peek ahead  into that future, TechCrunch will interview Andrew Ng, arguably the world’s most experienced AI practitioner at huge companies (Baidu, Google) as well as at startups. AI will be a theme across every session, but we’ll address again it head-on in a panel with investor Jocelyn Goldfein (Zetta), founder Bindu Reddy (Reality Engines) and executive John Ball (Salesforce / Einstein). 

#2. Data, The Cloud and Kubernetes.
If AI is at the dawn of tomorrow, cloud transformation is the high noon of today.  90% of the world’s data was created in the past two years, and no enterprise can keep its data hoard on-prem forever. Azure’s CTO
Mark Russinovitch (CTO) will discuss Microsft’s vision for the cloud. Leaders in the open-source Kubernetes revolution, Joe Beda (VMWare) and Aparna Sinha (Google) and others will dig into what Kubernetes means to companies making the move to cloud. And last, there is the question of how to find signal in all the data – which will bring three visionary founders to the stage: Benoit Dageville (Snowflake), Ali Ghodsi (Databricks), Murli Thirumale (Portworx). 

#3 Everything else on the main stage!
Let’s start with a fireside chat with
SAP CEO Bill McDermott and Qualtrics Chief Experience Officer Julie Larson-Green.  We have top investors talking where they are making their bets, and security experts talking data and privacy. And then there is quantum,  the technology revolution waiting on the other side of AI: Jay Gambetta, the principal theoretical scientist behind IBM’s quantum computing effort,  Jim Clarke, the director of quantum hardware at Intel Labs, and Krysta Svore, style="font-weight: 400;"> who leads the Microsoft’s quantum effort.

All told, there are 21 programming sessions.

#4 Network and get your questions answered.
There will be two Q&A breakout sessions with top enterprise investors for founders (and anyone else) to query investors directly. Plus, TechCrunch’s unbeatable CrunchMatch app makes it really easy to set up meetings with the other attendees, an
incredible array of folks, plus the  20 early-stage startups exhibiting on the expo floor.

#5 SAP
Enterprise giant SAP is our sponsor for the show, and they are not only bringing a squad of top executives, they are producing four parallel track sessions featuring key SAP Chief Innovation Officer
Max Wessel,  SAP Chief Designer and Futurist  Martin Wezowski and SAP.IO’s managing director Ram Jambunathan (SAP.iO) in sessions including, how to scale-up an enterprise startup, how startups win large enterprise customers, and what the enterprise future looks like.

Check out the complete agenda. Don’t miss this show! This line-up is a view into the future like none other. 

Grab your $349 tickets today, and don’t wait till the day of to book because prices go up at the door!

We still have 2 Startup Demo Tables left. Each table comes with 4 tickets and a prime location to demo your startup on the expo floor. Book your demo table now before they’re all gone!

Norrsken opens East Africa startup fund and hub in Kigali

Startups in East Africa have a new source for investment and mentorship.

Sweden’s Norrsken Foundation—a coworking space and investment fund based in Stockholmopened its tech fund and entrepreneurship hub in Rwanda today to support ventures across the region.

Norrsken’s Kigali center is located on the former École Belge campus and will begin with seed investments of $25K to $100K for early stage startups in all sectors starting this year, Norrsken CEO Erik Engellau-Nilsson told TechCrunch.

The fund size is still being determined and Norrsken Kigali will extend the fund to larger series-stage investments from $100K to $1 million in the future.

Norrsken’s Fredrika Wessman is the head of Africa expansion and the organization is in the process of hiring a local director for its new Kigali operation.

The Swedish foundation’s move into Rwanda is strongly connected to the organization’s focus on the power of tech entrepreneurs to solve problems and generate capacity.

“We believe the single most important thing we can do here is help people get wealthy, because if that happens more investors will start to look at this region and see there’s business opportunities and bring more capital,” said Engellau-Nilsson.

“The aim is to build the biggest hub for entrepreneurship in East Africa.”

Startups that receive Norrsken funding from its Kigali center will receive mentorship and support of the overall Norrsken organization and network. “That includes unicorn founders, leading tech founders, and developers. We also look to expand that network to local accelerators and incubators,” said Engellau-Nilsson.

The Kigali center is Norrsken’s first launch outside of Sweden and the organization looks to open in 25 markets globally over the next decade.

Norrsken was formed in 2016 by Niklas Adalberth, the founder of Swedish payments solutions unicorn Klarna. Engellau-Nilsson was an exec with Adalberth at Klarna from 2013 to 2017, and both aimed to do more to support impact-driven, early stage ventures.

“We wanted to use our experience and tech to solve real problems instead of finding another way to do things like deliver burrito’s faster,” said Engellau-Nilsson.

Over 340 entrepreneurs and 120 companies currently work out of Norrsken’s Stockholm location. The organization’s fund has invested in 17 ventures, including three Africa focused startups—agtech company Wefarm, digital publisher Kognity, and weather forecasting firm Ignitia.

Norrsken chose Rwanda as the base for its East African  for the country’s progress over the last decade on infrastructure, increasing internet penetration, and improving its business environment. In 2019, Rwanda ranked higher than any African country on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business list, 29th, before Spain.

Though the country has a relatively small population (12 million) and tech scene, the government of Rwanda has prioritized tech events and development in the country. This includes becoming a leader on  drone delivery and regulatory systems, working most notably with San Francisco based UAV startup Zipline.

Of the East African countries from which Norrksen will source investments, Kenya stands out as one of the continent’s top hubs for tech startup formation, VC, and exits.

As for how ventures can reach out to pitch to Norrsken’s new fund, “If there are entrepreneurs who want to reach out to us, we’re ready to go,” said Engellau-Nilsson. Norrsken posted an informational and contact link for its Rwanda hub today.

 

 

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