Cartona gets $4.5M pre-Series A to connect retailers with suppliers in Egypt

Year-old startup Capiter announced last week that it raised a $33 million Series A to digitize Egypt’s traditional offline retail market.

It’s looking to take a large pie in the budding e-commerce and retail play, where multiple startups are pulling their weight including Cartona, also a year-old startup out of Egypt.

Today, Cartona is announcing that it has raised a $4.5 million pre-Series A funding round to connect retailers and manufacturers via an application.

The company confirmed that Dubai-based venture capital firm Global Ventures led the round, with Pan-African firm Kepple Africa, T5 Capital and angel investors also participating.

Cairo-based Cartona, founded in August 2020, focuses on solving the supply-chain and operational challenges of players in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry by helping buyers access products from sellers on a single platform.

Buyers, in this case, are retailers, while sellers are FMCG companies, distributors and wholesalers.

The problem retailers in Egypt and most of Africa face mainly revolves around limited access to suppliers. There are also issues around transparency in market prices, which are dependent on traditional logistical capabilities.

For suppliers, the lack of data and inability to make data-backed decisions to improve margins and aid growth add up to unoptimized warehouses. 

“The trade market is completely inefficient and it’s not good for the supplier nor the manufacturers, and it’s definitely not good for retailers,” CEO Mahmoud Talaat told TechCrunch in an interview. “So we came up with the idea of Cartona, which is basically a fully light-asset model that connects manufacturers and wholesalers to retailers.”

Talaat founded the company alongside Mahmoud Abdel-Fattah. Before Cartona, Abdel-Fattah founded Speakol, a MENA-focused adtech platform serving 60 million monthly users, while Talaat was the chief commercial officer of agriculture company Lamar Egypt.

Cartona works as an asset-light marketplace. On the platform, grocery retailers can get orders from a curated network of sellers. The company says this way, it can provide visibility through real-time price comparisons and clarity on delivery times.

Also, FMCGs and suppliers can optimize their go-to-market execution through the use of data and analytics. Cartona tops it off by providing embedded finance and access to credit to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona makes money through all these processes. It takes a commission on orders made, charges suppliers for running advertising to merchants (since they compete for the latter’s attention), and provides market insights on buyer behavior, price competition and market share.

“It is time to capitalize on technology beyond warehouses and trucks. Data and technology will transform traditional retail to a digitally native one, which in return will drastically improve the supply chain efficiency,” Abdel-Fattah said about how the company sells information to retailers and suppliers.

Cartona has over 30,000 merchants on its platform. Together, they have processed more than 400,000 orders with an annualized gross merchandise value of EGP 1 billion (~$64 million). Cartona also works with more than 1,000 distributors, wholesalers and 100 FMCG companies, offering consumers more than 10,000 products, including dry, fresh and frozen food.

The company’s business and revenue model is similar to other companies in this space, but the main difference lies in whether they own assets or not.

Taking a look at the players in Egypt, for instance, MaxAB operates its warehouses and fleets; Capiter uses a hybrid model in which it rents these assets and owns inventory when dealing with high-turnover products. But Cartona solely manages an asset-light model.

The CEO tells me that he thinks this model works best for all the stakeholders involved in the retail market. He argues that not owning assets and leasing the ones on the ground shows that the company is trying to improve the operations of existing suppliers and merchants instead of displacing them.

I believe that the infrastructure already exists. We already have many warehouses, many small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, and wholesalers and distributors and companies that have a lot of assets. If you want to fix the problem, we think one should enable the people who are strategically located in small streets all over Egypt and have the infrastructure but don’t have the technology needed to optimize their warehouses and carts.”

The current margins for suppliers with warehouses are slim, and Cartona provides the technology — an inventory and ordering system — to provide efficiency in its supply chain.

The general partner at lead investor Global Ventures, Basil Moftah, said in a statement that Cartona’s technology and not owning inventory proved critical in the firm’s decision to back the company.

“The trade market is one of the most sophisticated, yet [it is] characterized by multiple critical inefficiencies across the value chain,” he said.Cartona’s asset-light approach tackles those inefficiencies by optimizing the trade process in unique ways and does so with minimal capital spent.”

Proceeds of the investment focus on improving this technology, Talaat said. In addition, Cartona is expanding its team and operations beyond two cities in Egypt — Cairo and Alexandria — to other parts.

A longer-term plan might include horizontal and vertical product expansion into pharmaceuticals, electronics and fashion.

Bzaar bags $4M to enable US retailers to source home, lifestyle products from India

Small businesses in the U.S. now have a new way to source home and lifestyle goods from new manufacturers. Bzaar, a business-to-business cross-border marketplace, is connecting retailers with over 50 export-ready manufacturers in India.

The U.S.-based company announced Monday that it raised $4 million in seed funding, led by Canaan Partners, and including angel investors Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, PhonePe founders Sameer Nigam and Rahul Chari, Addition founder Lee Fixel and Helion Ventures co-founder Ashish Gupta.

Nishant Verman and Prasanth Nair co-founded Bzaar in 2020 and consider their company to be like a “fair without borders,” Verman put it. Prior to founding Bzaar, Verman was at Bangalore-based Flipkart until it was acquired by Walmart in 2018. He then was at Canaan Partners in the U.S.

“We think the next 10 years of global trade will be different from the last 100 years,” he added. “That’s why we think this business needs to exist.”

Traditionally, small U.S. buyers did not have feet on the ground in manufacturing hubs, like China, to manage shipments of goods in the same way that large retailers did. Then Alibaba came along in the late 1990s and began acting as a gatekeeper for cross-border purchases, Verman said. U.S. goods imports from China totaled $451.7 billion in 2019, while U.S. goods imports from India in 2019 were $87.4 billion.

Bzaar screenshot. Image Credits: Bzaar

Small buyers could buy home and lifestyle goods, but it was typically through the same sellers, and there was not often a unique selection, nor were goods available handmade or using organic materials, he added.

With Bzaar, small buyers can purchase over 10,000 wholesale goods on its marketplace from other countries like India and Southeast Asia. The company guarantees products arrive within two weeks and manage all of the packaging logistics and buyer protection.

Verman and Nair launched the marketplace in April and had thousands users in three continents purchasing from the platform within six months. Meanwhile, products on Bzaar are up to 50% cheaper than domestic U.S. platforms, while SKU selection is growing doubling every month, Verman said.

The new funding will enable the company to invest in marketing to get in front of buyers and invest on its technology to advance its cataloging feature so that goods pass through customs seamlessly. Wanting to provide new features for its small business customers, Verman also intends to create a credit feature to enable buyers to pay in installments or up to 90 days later.

“We feel this is a once-in-a-lifetime shift in how global trade works,” he added. “You need the right team in place to do this because the problem is quite complex to take products from a small town in Vietnam to Nashville. With our infrastructure in place, the good news is there are already shops and buyers, and we are stitching them together to give buyers a seamless experience.”

 

9am.health launches with $3.7M to tackle virtual diabetes care

Founders like to create companies around what they know, and Frank Westermann and Anton Kittelberger know diabetes.

They met and bonded over both having type 1 diabetes — Westermann was diagnosed over 25 years ago — and started the MySugr app for diabetes self-management in 2012 (they won a TC pitch-off back in 2011). Four years later, Westermann moved to the U.S. from Austria to introduce MySugr stateside before the company was acquired by Roche for $100 million in 2017.

The pair moved on to their next journey, also in diabetes, starting 9am.health in April, a virtual diabetes clinic designed to provide people living with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes access to personalized care and affordable medications from their homes. 9am.health’s clinic was launched in August.

Today, the San Diego-based company announced a $3.7 million seed round from Founders Fund, Define Ventures, Speedinvest and iSeed Ventures to target the 1 in 3 people living with diabetes in the United States, Westermann told TechCrunch.

“We understand the day-to-day challenges that people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes have,” he added. “Access to care is the real issue, and rather than have patients wait weeks to get an appointment, we send a kit with tests to your home, and you send it back to us.”

9am.health kicked off in Texas and California, and is now available in 33 states. It is finding patients through digital outreach, community work and hospitals.

Even with insurance, the average person living with diabetes spends about $16,750 per year on medical expenses and has approximately 2.3 times higher the costs than if they didn’t have the disease. Instead, patients can subscribe to 9am.health for $40 per month; that includes online prescription shipping, unlimited personal medical care, medications to manage diabetes, hypertension or hyperlipidemia and at-home lab tests.

Westermann sees other companies working in the diabetes space, but says 9am.health is unique in providing “a digital front door for entire diabetes care,” while others focus on specific pain points. By taking that whole approach, he sees opportunity in going beyond diabetes to the general chronic disease realm as many living with diabetes — 98% of Americans in fact — also have other comorbidities like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and mental health issues, he added.

The new funding will enable the company to grow its team and carve out some of the digital diabetes market share that was valued at $13 billion in 2020 and is forecasted to grow annually by 18.8% through 2027. 9am.health will also invest in advancing its virtual screening ability and expand the types of medication it can offer.

9am.health diabetes kit

“We want to tear down the barriers and make care as easy as possible and managing diabetes part of life,” Westermann said. “When you live with chronic illness, it is an everyday thing, and sometimes you feel good, and others days you don’t. That’s why we named the company 9am.health because you can wake up at 9 a.m. and start your diabetes journey all over again.”

Lynne Chou O’Keefe, founder and managing partner at Define Ventures, says the future of healthcare is going to be more consumer-focused and will be wrapped around the patient’s care journey. She considers 9am.health to be leading this type of care with a platform that bundles education, community, coaching and care that is direct-to-consumer.

Chou O’Keefe has been investing in healthcare her entire VC career, and sat on the board of Livongo for four years. Through that experience she learned how patients struggle with their care decisions, and finds 9am.health’s founders to have a similar deep expertise and understanding in diabetes, especially with the success they had with MySugr.

“The last place you should receive healthcare is in the doctor’s office, while the first place should be wherever you are,” she added. “This is a very different way than what the healthcare system is today. We feel that people want to manage their diabetes, but then go on and live their lives.”

 

Amazon bets on Hindi voice shopping to reach wider India

Speaking of Amazon — which is reportedly conducting an investigation to find whether its lawyers bribed government officials in India — the company announced today it plans to roll out the voice shopping experience feature in the Hindi language in the South Asian market ahead of the Diwali festival in early November.

The e-commerce giant, which rolled out the voice shopping experience in English last year, said the feature in the Hindi language — which will roll out in “coming weeks” — will enable users to search for products and check their order status using voice commands such as “joote dikhao,” which is Hindi for ‘show me shoes.’

Only 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. And in recent years, voice search has dramatically surged in India as many new internet users find it difficult to type on virtual keyboards. Scores of tech companies — including Amazon’s rival, Flipkart — have in recent years made push to add support for more regional languages, or introduce support for voice queries — and in some cases, do both.

Amazon’s voice shopping experience will be available to only Android users, the company said.

“Since the launch of voice shopping in 2020, we are humbled to see by the adoption of voice by Amazon.in customers to fulfil their shopping needs has grown by 2X year-on-year. We will continue to focus on bringing new features for our customers on voice to make their shopping experience exciting and fulfilling,” said Kishore Thota, Director of Customer Experience and Marketing at Amazon India, in a statement.

The new rollout is part of a broader localization push from the company. Amazon said today that its website and apps are now also available in Marathi and Bengali. The website already supports five additional regional languages — Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu.

“Our aim with regional language shopping experience is to make ecommerce accessible, relevant and convenient for customers. Every month, tens of millions of customers visit Amazon.in in regional languages and 90% of the customers are from tier 2 and below cities. This festive season we are happy to expand the Amazon.in experience for our customers in Marathi and Bengali,” said Thota.

Indian news outlet The Ken reported last week that Amazon was also working on building a voice-based payments authentication system. The company declined to comment.

Demand Curve: How to get social proof that grows your startup

When people are uncertain, they look to others for behavioral guidance. This is called social proof, which is a physiological effect that influences your decisions every day, whether you know it or not.

At Demand Curve and through our agency Bell Curve, we’ve helped over 1,000 startups improve their ability to convert cold traffic into repeat customers. We’ve found that effectively using social proof can lead to up to 400% improvement in conversion.

This post shares exactly how to collect and use social proof to help grow your SaaS, e-commerce, or B2B startup.

Surprisingly, we’ve actually seen negative reviews help improve conversion rates. Why? Because they help set customer expectations.

How businesses use social proof

Have you ever stopped to check out a restaurant because it had a large line of people out front? That wasn’t by chance.

It’s common for restaurants to limit the size of their reception area. This forces people to wait outside, and the line signals to people walking past that the restaurant is so good it’s worth waiting for.

But for Internet-based businesses, social proof looks a bit different. Instead of people lining up outside your storefront, you’re going to need to create social proof that resonates with your target customers — they’ll be looking for different clues to signal whether doing business with your company is “normal” or “acceptable” behavior.

Social proof for B2B

People love to compare themselves to others, and this is especially true when it comes to the customers of B2B businesses. If your competitor is able to get a contract with a company that you’ve been nurturing for months, you’d be upset (and want to know how they did it).

Therefore, B2B social proof is most effective when you display the logos of companies you do business with. This signals to people checking out your website that other businesses trust you to deliver on your offer. The more noteworthy or respected the logos on your site, the stronger the influence will be.

Social proof for SaaS

Depending on the type of SaaS product or service you’re selling, you’ll either be selling to an individual or to a business. The strategy remains the same, but the channels will vary slightly.

The most effective way to generate social proof for SaaS products is through positive reviews from trusted sources. For consumer SaaS, that will be through influential bloggers and YouTubers speaking highly of your product. For B2B SaaS, it will be through positive ratings on review sites like G2 or Capterra. Proudly display these testimonials on your site.

Social proof for e-commerce brands

E-commerce brands will typically sell directly to an individual through ads, but because anyone can purchase an ad, you’re going to need to signal trust in other ways. The most common way we see e-commerce brands building social proof is by nurturing an organic social media following on Instagram or TikTok.

This signals to new customers that you’ve gotten the seal of approval from others like them. Having an audience also allows you to showcase user-generated content from your existing customers.

How to collect social proof

There are five avenues startups can tap to collect social proof:

  1. Product reviews
  2. Testimonials
  3. Public relations and earned media
  4. Influencers
  5. Social media and community

Here are a few tactics we’ve used to help startups build social proof.

Choices and constraints: How DTC companies decide which strategy to follow

Companies typically have to settle on strategies that align with their customers, employees, investors, and regulators. The more they know about how the other side will decide, the clearer their own strategies become.

If regulators always prefer choice for consumers, then it is easy for a platform to allow multiple payment choices: Shopify allows multiple payment options from its partners, Apple doesn’t.

By regulatory intervention, it will have to now.

Nash equilibrium and Netflix time

Nash equilibrium is a fascinating, post-facto explanation for some of the interesting decisions you will often see in business.

In simple terms, Nash equilibrium states that if you have clarity on the other side’s decision, you can make yours without regret. In other words, there is no incentive to change strategy once each side knows what the optimal position of the other side is, in their combined transaction.

All physical products cannot escape retail, because ignoring retail means a smaller serviceable market. But it is a choice companies can make.

I see this playing out every weekend at home. I don’t mind reading a book alone or watching Netflix with my kid, but when I am available for Netflix and my kid decides to read a book, it is a bummer.

DTCs, DNVBs and game theory

In DTC, how companies decide their omnichannel strategy depends on how well they know what their customers’ choices are and what their ideal strategy will be. In many transactions, constraints are actually good forcing functions — they narrow down choices and help you arrive at an equilibrium faster and cheaper.

The marketing and public-market filing languages make for a fascinating read into the minds of companies.

When Warby Parker filed its IPO prospectus last month, the company referred to its digitally-native status in the past tense. The model was effectively flipped in 2020, as its share of online sales to total sales dropped from 65% to 40%. Meanwhile, its physical store count increased from 126 to 145.

Constructor finds $55M for tech that powers search and discovery for e-commerce businesses

One of the biggest problems in the world of e-commerce is the predicament of shopping cart abandonment: when shoppers aren’t getting to what they want fast enough — whether it’s finding the right item, or paying for it in a quick and easy way — they bounce. That singular problem is driving a wave of technology development to make the experience ever more seamless, and today one of the companies closely involved in that space is announcing some funding on the back of healthy growth.

Constructor, which has built technology that powers search and product discovery tools for e-commerce businesses, has picked up $55 million in a Series A round of funding. Constructor says that it powers “billions” of queries every month, with revenues growing 233% in the last year. Customers it works with include Sephora, Walmart’s Bonobos, Backcountry and many other big names.

The round is being led by Silversmith Capital Partners — which coincidentally, just today, led another round for an e-commerce startup, Zonos.

It is joined by a long list of notable individual investors. They include David Fraga, former president of InVision; Kevin Weil, former head of product at Twitter and Instagram; Jason Finger, founder of Seamless; Carl Sparks, ex-CEO of Travelocity; Robyn Peterson, CTO at CNN; Dave Heath, founder of Bombas; Ryan Barretto, president at Sprout Social; Melody Hildebrandt, EVP engineering and CISO at FOX; Zander Rafael, co-founder of Better.com; and Seth Shaw, CRO at Airtable. Cap Table Coalition — a firm that helps underrepresented background investors back up-and-coming startups — was also involved. Fraga is joining Constructor’s board with this round.

The last year and a half has been a bumper one for the world of e-commerce — with more traffic, transactions and retailers moving online in the wake of social distancing measures impacting in-person, physical shopping. But that has also exposed a lot of the cracks in how e-commerce works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be).

One of the more dysfunctional areas is search and discovery. As most of us have unfortunately learned firsthand, when we search for things in the search window of an online store, it’s almost always the case that the results don’t have what we want.

When we browse as we might in a physical store, because we are not sure of what we want, all too often we are not prompted with pictures of things we might actually like to buy. They may be there — we typically visit sites because we either already know them, or have seen something we like elsewhere — but nevertheless, finding what we might actually like to buy can take a lot of time, and in many cases may never happen at all.

Eli Finkelshteyn, Constructor’s CEO and founder, says that one of the issues is that search and discovery are often built as static experiences: they are designed to meet a one-size-fits-all model where site architects have effectively guessed at what a shopper might want, and built for that. This is one area that Constructor has rethought, specifically by making search and discovery more dynamic and responsive to what’s happened before you ever visit a site.

“One of the things wrong with product discovery was that prescriptively sites show you what they think is valuable to you,” he said. “We think the process should be descriptive.”

As an example, he talked about Cheetos. Sometimes people who might want to buy these start out by navigating to the potato chip category. In many static searches, those results might not include Cheetos. Some people might abandon their search altogether (bounce), but some might navigate away from that and search specifically for Cheetos and add them to their carts. In a descriptive and more dynamic environment, Finkelshteyn believes that these two flows should subsequently inform all future chip searches.

“We take into account as much data as we can learn from, and that list is always growing,” he said. “The goal is anything we can learn from should become part of the user experience.”

Google is the current, undisputed leader in the world of search, and it too uses a lot of dynamic, AI-based tools to learn and tweak how it searches and what results it produces.

Interestingly it hasn’t extended as much of this to third parties as you might think. The company wound down its own site search product in 2017 and now if you look for this you are redirected to the company’s enterprise search suite.

There are, however, others that have also stepped into that void to provide services that compete with Constructor, including the likes of Algolia, Yext, Elasticsearch and more. Finkelshteyn believes that among all of these, none have managed yet to provide a service like Constructor’s that learns and adjusts its results constantly based on search and browsing activity.

This is one reason the company has stood out with its customers, and with investors.

“Constructor has built a search and discovery platform that is truly making a difference for enterprise retailers. They are providing customers with comprehensive and optimized search and discovery that is unmatched in the market,” said Sri Rao, Constructor board member and general partner at Silversmith Capital Partners, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with the Constructor team as they continue to revolutionize search and discovery capabilities for retailers across all platforms.”

Looking forward, there will be some interesting opportunities ahead for Constructor to take its search and discovery tools to new frontiers. These could include ways to bring in and account for shoppers on third-party platforms — currently Constructor does not power experiences on, say, social media, so that is one potential area to explore — as well as more offline experiences, critical as retailers and shoppers take on more blended approaches that might start online and finish in stores, or proceed the other way around, or find users walking around with their phones to shop even as they are in physical stores.

Logistics startup Stord raises $90M in Kleiner Perkins-led round, becomes a unicorn and acquires a company

When Kleiner Perkins led Stord’s $12.4 million Series A in 2019, its founders were in their early 20s and so passionate about their startup that they each dropped out of their respective schools to focus on growing the business.

Fast-forward two years and Stord — an Atlanta-based company that has developed a cloud supply chain — is raising more capital in a round again led by Kleiner Perkins.

This time, Stord has raised $90 million in a Series D round of funding at a post-money valuation of $1.125 billion — more than double the $510 million that the company was valued at when raising $65 million in a Series C financing just six months ago.

In fact, today’s funding marks Stord’s third since early December of 2020, when it raised its Series B led by Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, and brings the company’s total raised since its 2015 inception to $205 million.

Besides Kleiner Perkins, Lux Capital, D1 Capital, Palm Tree Crew, BOND, Dynamo Ventures, Founders Fund, Lineage Logistics and Susa Ventures also participated in the Series D financing. In addition, Michael Rubin, Fanatics founder and founder of GSI Commerce; Carlos Cashman, CEO of Thrasio; Max Mullen, co-founder of Instacart; and Will Gaybrick, CPO at Stripe, put money in the round.

Founders Sean Henry, 24, and Jacob Boudreau, 23, met while Henry was at Georgia Tech and Boudreau was in online classes at Arizona State (ASU) but running his own business, a software development firm, in Atlanta.

Over time, Stord has evolved into a cloud supply chain that can give companies a way to compete and grow with logistics, and provides an integrated platform “that’s available exactly when and where they need it,” Henry said. Stord combines physical logistics services such as freight, warehousing and fulfillment in that platform, which aims to provide “complete visibility, rapid optimization and elastic scale” for its users.

About two months ago, Stord announced the opening of its first fulfillment center, a 386,000-square-foot facility, in Atlanta, which features warehouse robotics and automation technologies. “It was the first time we were in a building ourselves running it end to end,” Henry said.

And today, the company is announcing it has acquired Connecticut-based Fulfillment Works, a 22-year-old company with direct-to-consumer (DTC) experience and warehouses in Nevada and in its home state.

With FulfillmentWorks, the company says it has increased its first-party warehouses, coupled with its network of over 400 warehouse partners and 15,000 carriers.

While Stord would not disclose the amount it paid for Fulfillment Works, Henry did share some of Stord’s impressive financial metrics. The company, he said, in 2020 delivered its third consecutive year of 300+% growth, and is on track to do so again in 2021. Stord also achieved more than $100 million in revenue in the first two quarters of 2021, according to Henry, and grew its headcount from 160 people last year to over 450 so far in 2021 (including about 150 Fulfillment Works employees). And since the fourth quarter is often when people do the most online shopping, Henry expects the three-month period to be Stord’s heaviest revenue quarter.

For some context, Stord’s new sales were up “7x” in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same period last year. So far in the third quarter, sales are up almost 10x, according to Henry.

Put simply, Stord aims to give brands a way to compete with the likes of Amazon, which has set expectations of fast fulfillment and delivery. The company guarantees two-day shipping to anywhere in the country.

“The supply chain is the new competitive battleground,” Henry said. “Today’s buying expectations set by Amazon and the rise of the omni-channel shopper have placed immense pressure on companies to maintain more nimble and efficient supply chains… We want every company to have world-class, Prime-like supply chains.”

What makes Stord unique, according to Henry, is the fact that it has built what it believes to be the only end-to-end logistics network that combines the physical infrastructure with software.

That too is one of the reasons that Kleiner Perkins doubled down on its investment in the company.

Ilya Fushman, Stord board director and partner at Kleiner Perkins, said even at the time of his firm’s investment in 2019, that Henry displayed “amazing maturity and vision.”

At a high level, the firm was also just drawn to what he described as the “incredibly large market opportunity.”

“It’s trillions of dollars of products moving around with consumer expectation that these products will get to them the same day or next day, wherever they are,” Fushman told TechCrunch. “And while companies like Amazon have built amazing infrastructure to do that themselves, the rest of the world hasn’t really caught up… So there’s just amazing opportunity to build software and services to modernize this multitrillion-dollar market.”

In other words, Fushman explained, Stord is serving as a “plug and play” or “one stop shop” for retailers and merchants so they don’t have to spend resources on their own warehouses or building their own logistics platforms.

Stord launched the software part of its business in January 2020, and it grew 900% during the year, and is today one of the fastest-growing parts of its business.

“We built software to run our logistics and network of hundreds of warehouses,” Henry told TechCrunch. “But if companies want to use the same system for existing logistics, they can buy our software to get that kind of visibility.”

Creative ad tech is on the cusp of a revolution, and VCs should take note

2021 has been a good year to be an ad tech investor. Valuations are surging, Wall Street is happy and exits are frequent and satisfying. It’s the perfect time to double down and invest in an area that has been largely ignored but is poised for major upside in the next few years: Digital creative ad technology.

Think about it. When was the last time we saw a major ad tech funding round that was directed at the actual ads themselves — the messages people actually see everyday? I’d argue that now is the perfect time.

The adtech startups that can figure out how to adapt ads that can interact with the remote control, a synced smartphone or voice commands — maybe even make them shoppable — can theoretically produce a game-changer.

Here are five reasons why VCs should consider ratcheting up their investment into ad tech startups building the next generation of creative tools:

Creative tech is far from being saturated

Consider how much has been spent over the 15 years on digital advertising mechanics such as targeting, serving, measuring and verification. Not to mention the trillions that have gone toward helping brands keep track of customer data and interactions — the marketing clouds, DMPs and CDPs.

Yet you can count the number of creative-centric ad tech companies on one hand. This means there is a lot of room for innovation and early leaders. VideoAmp, which helps brands make ads for various social platforms, pulled in $75 million earlier this year. Given how fast platforms like TikTok and Snap are growing, it won’t be the last.

Digital ad targeting is being squeezed

Ads need to do more work today. Between regulation, cookies going away and Apple locking down data collection, we’ve seen a renewed interest in contextual advertising, including funding for the likes of GumGum, as well as identity resolution firms like InfoSum.

But the digital ad ecosystem can’t get by only using broader data-crunching techniques to replace “retargeting.” The medium is practically crying out for a creative revival that can only be sparked by scalable tech. The recent funding for creative testing startup Marpipe is a start, but more focus is needed on actual tech-driven ideation and automation.

Amazon partners with AXS to install Amazon One palm readers at entertainment venues

Amazon’s biometric scanner for retail, the Amazon One palm reader, is expanding beyond the e-commerce giant’s own stores. The company announced today it has acquired its initial third-party customer with ticketing company AXS, which will implement the Amazon One system at Denver, Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre as an option for contactless entry for event-goers.

This is the first time the Amazon One system will be used outside an Amazon-owned retail store, and the first time it’s used for entry into an entertainment venue. Amazon says it expects AXS to roll out the system to more venues in the future, but didn’t offer any specifics as to which ones or when.

At Red Rocks, guests will be able to associate their AXS Mobile ID with Amazon One at dedicated stations before they enter the amphitheatre, or they can enroll at a second station once inside in order to use the reader at future AXS events. The enrollment process takes about a minute and customers can choose to enroll either one or both palms. Once set up, ticketholders can use a dedicated entry line for Amazon One users.

“We are proud to work with Amazon to continue shaping the future of ticketing through cutting-edge innovation,” said Bryan Perez, CEO of AXS, in a statement. “We are also excited to bring Amazon One to our clients and the industry at a time when there is a need for fast, convenient, and contactless ticketing solutions. At AXS, we are continually deploying new technologies to develop secure and smarter ticketing offerings that improve the fan experience before, during, and after events,” he added.

Image Credits: Amazon

 

Amazon’s palm reader was first introduced amid the pandemic in September 2020, as a way for shoppers to pay at Amazon Go convenience stores using their palm. To use the system, customers would first insert their credit card then hover their palm over the device to associate their unique palm print with their payment mechanism. After setup, customers could enter the store just by holding their palm above the biometric scanner for a second or so. Amazon touted the system as a safer, “contactless” means of payment, as customers aren’t supposed to actually touch the reader. (Hopefully, that’s the case, considering the pandemic rages on.)

On the tech side, Amazon One uses computer vision technology to create the palm signatures, it said.

In the months that followed, Amazon expanded the biometric system to several more stores, including other Amazon Go convenience stores, Amazon Go Grocery stores, and its Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star stores. This April, it brought the system to select Whole Foods locations. To encourage more sign-ups, Amazon even introduced a $10 promotional credit to enroll your palm prints at its supported stores.

When palm prints are linked to Amazon accounts, the company is able to collect data from customers’ offline activity to target ads, offers, and recommendations over time. And the data remains with Amazon until a customer explicitly deletes it, or if the customer doesn’t use the feature for at least two years.

While the system offers an interesting take on contactless payments, Amazon’s track record in this area has raised privacy concerns. The company had in the past sold biometric facial recognition services to law enforcement in the U.S. Its facial recognition technology was the subject of a data privacy lawsuit. And it was found to be still storing Alexa voice data even after users deleted their audio files.

Amazon has responded by noting its palm print images are encrypted and sent to a secure area built for Amazon One in the cloud where Amazon creates the customers’ palm signatures. It also has noted it allows customers to unenroll from either a device or from its website, one.amazon.com once all transactions have been processed.