NY-based autonomous reusable rocket startup lands Air Force contract

New York-based startup iRocket has landed a contract award from the U.S. Air Force to develop and build its fully autonomous small payload rockets, which the company says will be able to launch and propulsively land both its first and second stages, with the potential of launching small payloads on demand in as little as 24 hours.

iRocket is one of a few different companies looking to provide quick turnaround, rapid-response launch capabilities to serve a growing need among defense customers, particularly in the U.S., for those services. U.S. defense agencies are seeking this specifically to help them send up small satellites in greater numbers, with greater frequency, in order to help provide redundancy and address specific needs as they arise.

The iRocket Shockwave launch vehicles are intended to carry a payload with maximum size of around 1,500 kg (around 3,300 lbs) and are best to take off from sites inlacing Spaceport Oklahoma and potentially Launch Complex 48 at Kennedyy Space Cetner in Cape Canaveral. Flexibility in terms of launch sites, including inland in the continental U.S., is another way they can support for flexibility and responsive operations for the Department of Defense and others.

iRocket plans to fly its first launch in just under three years’ time, with a plan to begin offering on-orbit satellite servicing as one of its products by 2025. It has a long way to go before that, but there’s definitely plenty of institutional interest in this from deep-pocketed government and defense customers.

African payment startup Chipper Cash raises $13.8M Series A

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has closed a $13.8 million Series A funding round led by Deciens Capital and plans to hire 30 new staff globally.

The raise caps an event filled run for the San Francisco based payments company, founded two years ago by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled.

The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds.

Two years and $22 million in total capital raised later, Chipper Cash offers its mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

“We’re now at over one and a half million users and doing over a $100 million dollars a month in volume,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Chipper Cash does not release audited financial data, but does share internal performance accounting with investors. Deciens Capital and Raptor Group co-led the startup’s Series A financing, with repeat support from 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures .

Deciens Capital founder Dan Kimmerling confirmed the fund’s lead on the investment and review of Chipper Cash’s payment value and volume metrics.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout: a merchant-focused, fee-based mobile payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business.

The company will use its latest round to hire up to 30 people across operations in San Francisco, Lagos, London, Nairobi and New York — according to Serunjogi.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has already brought on a new compliance officer, Lisa Dawson, whose background includes stints with the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and Citigroup’s anti-money laundering department.

“You know in the world we live in the AML side is very important so it’s an area that we want to invest in from the get go,” said Serunjogi.

He confirmed Dawson’s role aligned with getting Chipper Cash ready to meet regulatory requirements for new markets, but declined to name specific countries.

With the round announcement, Chipper Cash also revealed a corporate social responsibility component to its business. Related to current U.S. events, the startup has formed the Chipper Fund for Black Lives.

“We’ve been huge beneficiaries of the generosity and openness of this country and its entrepreneurial spirit,” explained Serunjogi. “But growing up in Africa, we’ve were able to navigate [the U.S.] without the traumas and baggage our African American friends have gone through living in America.”

The Chipper Fund for Black Lives will give 5 to 10 grants of $5,000 to $10,000. “The plan is to give that to…people or causes who are furthering social justice reforms,” said Serunjogi.

In Africa, Chipper Cash has placed itself in the continent’s major digital payments markets. As a sector, fintech has become Africa’s highest funded tech space, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Those ventures, and a number of the continent’s established banks, are in a race to build market share through financial inclusion.

By several estimates — including The Global Findex Database — the continent is home to the largest percentage of the world’s unbanked population, with a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Increasingly, Nigeria has become the most significant fintech market in Africa, with the continent’s largest economy and population of 200 million.

Chipper Cash expanded there in 2019 and faces competition from a number of players, including local payments venture Paga. More recently, outside entrants have jumped into Nigeria’s fintech scene.

In 2019, Chinese investors put $220 million into OPay (owned by Opera) and PalmPay — two fledgling startups with plans to scale first in West Africa and then the broader continent.

Over the next several years, expect to see market events — such as fails, acquisitions, or IPOs — determine how well funded fintech startups, including Chipper Cash, fare in Africa’s fintech arena.

SpaceX to build floating spaceports for rockets bound for the Moon and Mars, and for hypersonic Earth travel

SpaceX is hiring experts in Offshore Operations in Brownsville, job ads revealed on Tuesday – and the purpose is to help the company develop and build floating spaceports that will provide launch sites for the company’s’ Super Heavy-class launch vehicles. SpaceX will use these larger rockets to get its forthcoming large payload rockets to the Moon, to Mars – and also for point-to-point travel right here on Earth, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

Musk said on Twitter that this was the purpose behind the new job posting, which was originally spotted by Dan Paasch. SpaceX has previously shown concepts of its forthcoming Super Heavy rocket booster, paired with its Starship spacecraft, launching for hypersonic Earth travel – which would reduce the trip time for long-haul flights to merely a couple of hours. Those concepts have thus far consisted only of renders, however, and we didn’t know what the plan was in terms of how and from where those spacecraft would launch until today.

Starship and Super Heavy are primarily being developed to help SpaceX and Musk realize their goal of delivering human to Mars, in order to colonize that and other interstellar destinations including the Moon to “make humans an interstellar species.” But while those goals may seem out of reach to most people, the company’s aims of using the same fully reusable spacecraft to greatly decrease the cost of point-to-point supersonic travel here on Earth are likely to be much more relevant.

Point-to-point space-based transportation is not a new concept, and others beyond SpaceX are working on developing ways to make this happen. The idea is that by traveling at the edge of, or beyond Earth’s atmosphere, you can greatly reduce the fuel cost and duration of flight – traveling the distance between New York and Paris, for instance, in under an hour. In fact, SpaceX claimed during a presentation in 2017 that point-to-point transportation with its Starship could reach any city on Earth from any other city in less than an hour.

SpaceX has been developing Starship in Texas, near Brownsville where this new job posting is seeking Offshore Operations Engineers. The company has been expanding its testing and development site in the area, and has also sought to increase the resources dedicated to its operations in the state.

Musk didn’t share much more about the plans, but did say in response to another tweet that claimed this amounted to “Referb[ushing] oil platforms with a hyperloop to transport from land” was “pretty much” part of the plan, so that could be involved in shuttling passengers back and forth to and from their departure and destination spaceports.

T-Mobile hit by phone calling, text message outage

T-Mobile appears to be having problems.

Customers are reporting that they can’t make or receive phone calls, although data appears to be unaffected. Some customers say that text messaging is also affected.

DownDetector, which collects outage reports from users, indicates that a major outage is underway. It’s not clear how widespread the issue is, but at the time of writing T-Mobile was trending across the United States on Twitter.

The outage appears to have started around 10am PT (1pm ET) on Monday.

DownDetector reporting outages across the U.S.

In our own tests in New York and Seattle, we found that making calls from a T-Mobile phone would fail almost immediately after placing the call. We also found that the cell service on our phones were intermittent, with bars occasionally dropping to zero or losing access to high-speed data.

In April, Sprint and T-Mobile completed its merger, valued at $26 billion, making the combined cell network the third largest carrier in the United States behind AT&T and Verizon.

A spokesperson for T-Mobile also did not immediately comment on the outage.

Other networks may also be experiencing downtime, per customer reports. But so far Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and Sprint have not responded to a request for comment. An AT&T spokesperson said that the network is operating normally.

Widespread cell networks are rare but do happen. In 2017, CenturyLink had a network failure that affected all major U.S. carriers and 911 emergency services that rely on the fiber network to route calls. In some U.S. counties, officials sent out emergency alerts to cell phone users to warn that 911 services had been disrupted.

Updated to note that carrier-dependent text messaging also appears to be affected.

Rewarding civic pride and boosting the local economy? Akron, Ohio is trying out a startup for that

Akron, Ohio, the hometown of LeBron James and the seat of the US tire industry; the one hundred and twenty seventh largest city in the US; and the home of America’s first toy company is now the latest site of a global experiment in whether cities can use behavioral economics to help foster good citizenship.

Thanks to the work of the city’s deputy mayor for integrated development, James Hardy, Akron is the first city to roll out services from an Israeli-based company called Colu. A startup backed by just over $20 million in financing from American and Israeli investors, the company has developed an app-based rewards service that cities can roll out to provide perks to users.

In Akron’s case, the initiative rewards points for shopping at local businesses that can be redeemed for discounts at those stores. The initial effort, which includes a platform for businesses to market directly to the app’s users, focuses on businesses owned by women and minorities (a response to the movement for racial justice that has sprung up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis).

Akron is the first city of what Colu founder Amos Meiri expects to be a nationwide rollout throughout the US. The company already has managed to ink another agreement with the city of Chula Vista, Calif.

Colu, which has raised its capital from investors associated with blockchain technologies like Barry Silbert’s Digital Currency Group; the Boston-based venture capital firm, Spark Capital; New York’s Box Group and the Israeli corporate conglomerate, IDB Group, has deep ties to the cryptocurrency world of alternative financial instruments through Meiri.

One of the original architects of the Ethereum protocol, Meiri’s work with Colu is in some ways an extension of that effort to create new kinds of economies powered by alternative financial mechanisms.

Meiri said cities typically pay for Colu out of their marketing budgets as a new way to communicate and attempt to influence civic behavior.

For Akron’s government officials, the company’s services are a way to boost locally owned businesses that have been hit hard by the state’s attempts to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our locally owned small businesses are facing enormous challenges and we need out-of-the-box ideas that safely connect them to consumers and turn local spending into a source of pride for residents,” said Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, in a statement. “Our partnership with Colu will enable the city to reward customers for shopping local, improving revenues for our small businesses while helping folks stretch their dollars.”

Earlier work with the municipal government in Tel Aviv promoted sustainable business practice and encouraged businesses to do more to manage their waste and carbon footprint by introducing a “green label”. Businesses that followed the city’s guidelines were given the label and shoppers were encouraged to frequent those merchants.

Colu envisions itself as more than just a marketing and rewards platform for businesses. The company hopes it can draw users into a kind of social networking platform for civic engagement where users can share their own stories about city-life and their interactions with local business owners and the community.

In some ways, it’s a kinder, gentler version of China’s social credit scoring system, which is also designed to influence civic behavior. In this formulation, there’s a rewards system, but no mechanisms to punish citizens for bad behavior.

“Akron has a long history of innovation within our economy — this initiative draws on that legacy,” said Deputy Mayor Hardy, in a statement. “By putting the future of Akron’s locally owned small businesses in the palm of our citizens’ hands, we hope to make it easy for consumers to keep their money local and continue to strengthen our incredible community.”

Halal fintech startup Wahed closes $25M led by Saudi Aramco’s investment arm

New York-based fintech startup Wahed (meaning ‘One’ in Arabic) describes itself as a digital Islamic investment platform and as the world’s first ‘halal robo adviser’. It’s now closed a $25 million investment round led by Saudi Aramco Entrepreneurship Ventures (also known as Wa’ed Ventures), a venture capital investment arm of oil giant Saudi Aramco.

Existing investors BECO and CueBall Capital participated, as well as Dubai Cultiv8, and Rasameel. The funds will be used to expand internationally, including developing the company’s subsidiary in Saudi Arabia. The platform is currently running in the US and UK, and has more than 100,000 clients globally. It plans to grow in the largest Muslim markets including Indonesia, Nigeria, India and the CIS. The three-year-old company has already received a license to operate in Saudi Arabia, and aims to get regulatory approval in 20 countries.

According to Crunchbase, Wahed has now raised a total of $40 million in funding since its 2015 founding by Junaid Wahedna.

Last October, Wahed launched in Malaysia after the Malaysian Securities Commission awarded the company the country’s first Islamic Robo Advisory license. The firm is also considering listing its Islamic ETF on the Saudi stock exchange

Ethical investment and Islamic finance is growing in popularity in Muslim countries so long as it is in line with Islamic ethics, so Wahed looks set to benefit.

Commenting on the investment, Junaid Wahedna, CEO of Wahed, said: “We’re excited to have the support of Aramco Ventures as we foray into the Saudi market. We consider Aramco a strategic long term partner in both the Kingdom and the rest of the world.” 

Wassim Basrawi, Managing Director at Wa’ed Ventures, said: “We believe in Wahed’s mission to provide ethical investing. The company has taken the lead in delivering investment services to one of the world’s fastest-growing sectors – Islamic Finance. Wahed is also, in the true spirit of FinTech, helping to broaden the investment landscape. This latest funding round will enable Wahed to make Saudi their regional MENA hub and contribute towards a fast-growing FinTech ecosystem.”

Carry1st has $4M to invest in African mobile gaming

Gaming development startup Carry1st has raised a $2.5 million seed round led by CRE Venture Capital .

That brings the company’s total VC to $4 million, which Carry1st will deploy to support and invest in game publishing across Africa.

The startup — with offices in New York, Lagos, and South Africa — was co-founded in 2018 by Sierra Leonean Cordel Robbin-Coker, American Lucy Parry, and Zimbabwean software engineer Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu.

Robbin-Coker and Parry met while working in investment banking in New York, before forming Carry1st.

“I convinced her to avoid going to business school and instead come to South Africa to Cape Town,” Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch on a call.

“We launched with the idea that we wanted to bring the gaming industry…to the African continent.”

Carry1st looks to match gaming demand in Africa to the continent’s fast growing youth population, improving internet penetration and rapid smartphone adoption.

Carry1st has already launched two games as direct downloads from its site, Carry1st Trivia and Hyper!.

“In April, [Carry1st Trivia] did pretty well. It was the number one game in Nigeria, and Kenya for most of the year and did about one and a half million downloads.” Robbin-Coker said.

Carry1st Africa

Image Credit: Carry1st

The startup will use a portion of its latest round and overall capital to bring more unique content onto its platform. “In order to do that, you need cash…to help a developer finish a game or entice a strong game to work with you,” said Robbin-Coker.

The company will also expand its distribution channels, such as partnerships with mobile operators and the Carry1st Brand Ambassador program — a network of sales agents who promote and sell games across the continent.

The company will also invest in the gaming market and itself.

“We want to dedicate at least a million dollars to actually going out and acquiring users and scaling our user base. And then, the final piece is really around the the tech platform that we’re looking to build,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails creating multiple channels and revenue points to develop, distribute, and invest in games on the continent, he explained.

Image Credits: Carry1st

Robbin-Coker compared the Carry1st’s strategy in Africa as something similar to Sea: an Asia regional mobile entertainment distribution platform — publicly traded and partially owned by Tencent — that incubated the popular Fornite game.

“We’re looking to be the number one regional publisher of [gaming] content in the region…the publisher of record and the app store,” said Robbin-Coker.

That entails developing and distributing not only games originating from the continent, but also serving as channel for gaming content from other continents coming into Africa.

That generates a consistent revenue stream for the startup, Robbin-Coker explained, but also creates opportunities for big creative wins.

“It’s a hits driven business. A single studio will work and toil in obscurity for a decade and then they’ll make Candy Crush. And then that would be worth $6 billion, very quickly,” Carry1st’s CEO said.

He and his team will use a portion of their $4 million in VC to invest in that potential gaming success story in Africa.

The company’s co-founder Lucy Parry directs aspirants to the company’s homepage. “There’s a big blue button that says ‘Pitch Your Game’ at the bottom of our website.”

New York Auto Show canceled for 2020, pushed to spring 2021

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, once hoping to hold the rescheduled event in August, have decided to scrap the entire year. The show has been officially canceled for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers announced Friday.

The next show will take place April 2 to April 11, 2021. Press days will be March 31 and April 1.

The New York Auto Show, which is organized by the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, was scheduled to begin April 10 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. The event was rescheduled for late August after COVID-19 swept into Europe and North America.

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, the traditional location for the show, was set up as a field hospital for COVID-19 cases. The center doesn’t have any patients. However, it is still set up as an active hospital and is in standby mode for the foreseeable future, according to organizers.

Mark Schienberg, president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association, noted that “immense planning” is needed for automakers and their exhibit partners to construct a show.

“Because of the uncertainty caused by the virus, we feel it would not be prudent to continue with the 2020 Show and instead are preparing for an even greater 2021,” Schienberg said.

“As representatives of automobile retailers, we know when this crisis passes there will be enormous pent-up demand for new vehicles in this region and across the country,” he added. “We also know how important the Show is for consumers navigating the process.”

New Orleans-based Resilia raises $8 million from Mucker Capital to make nonprofits more efficient

Sevetri Wilson founded her first company, a public relations firm catering to non-profit organizations, as soon as she graduated from Louisiana State University back in 2009.

Eleven years later, and with a fresh $8 million round of funding in the bank, Wilson has taken the experience she amassed working in the nonprofit world and turned it into her new business, Resilia. From offices in New Orleans and New York, Wilson’s company offers a suite of services for nonprofits to better manage and report their finances and for grant-making and philanthropic organizations to find the groups that are working in the areas they want to support.

“We are serving a two-sided market,” Wilson said. “We are providing software solutions from non-profits.. Helping them come online… whether you’re a charter school or healthcare clinic and from there we have helped non-profits with their compliance and fundraising and built that into a subscription platform.”

There are approximately 1.56 million nonprofits in the U.S., according to a 2019 report from the Urban Institute. And those organizations contributed roughly $985.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the last available data. That’s roughly 5.4% of the U.S. gross domestic product.

Of those non-profits, public charities accounted for three-quarters of revenue and expenses representing $1.98 trillion and just under-two thirds of the total assets of the nonprofit sector, which amount to a whopping $3.67 trillion.

Those are huge numbers and represent a massive opportunity for companies that can find better, lower-cost ways to service these organizations and help make the entire industry run more efficiently.

“For large funders, their job is to deploy capital,” Wilson said. “They have to monitor them and pull reports and track data and do evaluations.. If you are Oxfam America we are essentially covering their southern territories and the organizations they’re funding around workforce development.”

Now, in the wake of the economic collapse that’s accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., nonprofits are taking an even more central position in the U.S. economy.

With a market representing hundreds of billions of dollars its no wonder that the Louisiana-based investment firm Callais Capital chose to back the company. Notably, Resilia also managed to bring in Mucker Capital, the Los Angeles-based investment firm that’s coming off one of the best years in its history.

Mucker, which raked in marquee returns last year off of its seed investment in Honey, the browser extension coupon service which PayPal acquired for $4 billion, is steadily expanding from its Los Angeles home and building up a presence in the Southeast.

“Entrepreneurs outside of LA look more like LA entrepreneurs than they do like Bay Area entrepreneurs” said William Hsu. “Working with them… we saw that skillset of working with LA could be replicated somewhere else.”

That somewhere else was Nashville, where Mucker has a presence through Monique Villa, the firm’s investor and scout for deals across the Southeast.

“We charged her with looking at every deal in the Southeast,” said Hsu. In the year-and-a-half that Villa has been investing, Mucker has made three public investments: Go Check Kids, Blueprint Title, and now, Resilia.

“One of the things that is interesting to us is how the rest of the US looks at New York and San Francisco as an elitist enclave,” said Hsu. “The populist part doesn’t connect or look up to the ethos of SF or NY.. We want to be an accessible and populist VC brand.”

It’s hard to get more populist than investing in a company founded by an African American woman who went to a land-grant university in Baton Rouge, La.

There’s already real revenue coming in for Wilson’s startup. Large donor customers pay $199 per-seat per-month for access to the company’s list of well-run nonprofits, and nonprofits pay $99.99 per month for access to the management tools, grant writing support and other features that they may need.

We’re in such a good position because our product was created to capture innovation and mitigate grants and connect to capital in organizations to have a better understand of where that’s money is going and wether or not it’s being wasted,” Wilson said. 

Mount Sinai deploys Google Nest cameras for COVID-19 patient monitoring and communication

The ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a lot of activity around remote care, but a new project by Mount Sinai hospital, working in collaboration with Google’s Nest, shows how even on-premise care can be made safer using remote technologies. Clinicians at Mount Sinai have begun using Google Nest Cameras in patient rooms, to provide video-based patient symptom and vital sign tracking, as well as two-way communication.

Using Nest Cameras for this helps healthcare professionals including nurses and doctors to limit their potential exposure to COVID-19, allowing them to centrally monitor and provide care while limiting person-to-person interaction to only extremely necessary contact. This lessens exposure, which is crucial as frontline healthcare workers are particularly at-risk of significant viral load, which essentially means that the more you’re in contact with individuals infected with COVID-19, the more likely your immune system won’t be able to keep up and you’ll get infected yourself.

This also helps the hospital in another key way: preserving personal protective equipment (PPE). Remote monitoring means that staff will be able to use significantly fewer masks and gloves, ensuring that stock levels aren’t depleted quite as quickly as they would have been otherwise.

Google is installing the Nest Cameras in over 100 rooms at Mount Sinai in New York, and plans to provide up to 10,000 of the devices along with custom-designed monitoring consoles to hospitals across the U.S. The system is also designed so that Google doesn’t store any footage collected, and in fact doesn’t even have access to it to begin with, to preserve patient privacy.

Even with direct care is necessary to help protect lives, remote health tech clearly has a role to play in mitigating the worst potential impacts of the pandemic. This is probably still just the beginning of how we see this kind of technology be deployed to try to buttress health infrastructure under duress as the crisis continues.