Demo your early-stage startup at the TechCrunch Summer Party

Nothing says summer in Silicon Valley better than the TechCrunch Summer Party. In its 14th year, we’re celebrating the startup spirit and culture at the Park Chalet, San Francisco’s coastal beer garden, on July 25. Who doesn’t love ocean views?

And nothing says relaxed networking in Silicon Valley more than showcasing your early-stage startup at our summer soiree. It’s a great opportunity to demo your business and place your face in front of influential people in a convivial atmosphere. Each demo table includes four summer party tickets — bring your whole crew. There’s a limited number of tables available, so book your startup demo package now.

Experience world-class networking and still have time to enjoy the venue, drink craft beer, sip a signature a cocktail or two and nosh on yummy appetizers. Maybe it’s the relaxed setting, the shared camaraderie or maybe it’s the libations — who can say for sure — but TechCrunch parties tend to be the place where start-uppers meet the people who go on to change their lives — future investors, co-founders or buyers.

Plus there’ll be several VC firms in attendance who are partnering with us for the event.

  • August Capital
  • Battery Ventures
  • Data Collective
  • Uncork Capital

Summer Party details you need to know:

  • When: July 25 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
  • Where: Park Chalet in San Francisco
  • Attendee ticket: $95
  • Startup demo package: $2,000 — includes four attendee tickets, one cocktail table, tabletop sign, power and internet access

There will be plenty of games and prizes. Yes, we love giving away prizes, like TechCrunch swag, Amazon Echos and tickets to Disrupt San Francisco 2019.

Come to the TechCrunch Summer Party at the Park Chalet and showcase your early-stage genius to a passel of influential start-uppers in a fun, relaxed setting. It’s a great opportunity to meet your future. Buy your demo table today, and we’ll hoist a craft beer to your success.

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at the TechCrunch 14th Annual Summer Party? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.

As payment and surveillance technologies collide, free speech could be a victim

Anyone who has traveled to Hong Kong knows how ubiquitous the Octopus Card is. Distributed by a company which is majority owned by the Hong Kong government, the cards are used to pay for everything from public transit to groceries, to Starbucks coffee. It’s an incredible payment solution that’s used by almost everyone in the city.

But as hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city center to protest against proposed regulations that residents view as tearing down the last protections against the authoritarian control of mainland China, those same citizens are viewing their Octopus cards in a different light.

Protestors in Hong Kong are waiting in line to pay cash for a single-use card rather then use an Octopus card that’s tied to their bank accounts and identity. Their fear, as QZ journalist Mary Hui notes, is that the government will track their data and location.

Already, China’s security apparatus are leaning on citizens. In one instance they allegedly requested that the organizer of a large Telegram group open their phone and reveal their contacts.

Potential privacy concerns are a huge downside for cashless technology. While electronic payments can make things more convenient for the people that can afford it, it opens up new avenues for government or corporate surveillance and monitoring.

On the mainland, the Chinese government is already experimenting with social credit scoring that can affect a citizen’s access to everything from home and personal loans to public transportation.

Examples like this are another argument against the push for cashless systems.

Indeed, as some cities in the U.S. consider — or enact — bans on cashless stores, companies are shifting their policies on how to develop the technology. Philadelphia became the first city to ban cashless stores in March and the state of New Jersey quickly followed suit. Other cities considering the bans include New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

As nations like China and India push to go cashless, it’s worth noting that the ease of use promised by integrated electronic payment systems can be coupled with increasingly sophisticated forms of surveillance. Locking citizens in to a model where all financial transactions can be tracked — or are intrinsically linked — to a smartphone, may be great for governments, but it’s potentially terrible for democracy and its support for free speech and assembly.

 

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.

 

 

Vuzix smart glasses get automatic facial recognition designed for law enforcement

This is one of those ‘I’m not surprised but I am slightly terrified’ moments in tech development: Enterprise smart glasses company Vuzix announced Monday that it has developed new “fully autonomous” face recognition software in partnership with software developer NNTC.

The new solution will work with Vuzix’s Blade smart glasses, which debuted at CES earlier this year and are positioned as both an enterprise and a consumer product. t’s called iFalcon Face Control Mobile, which is a mouthful, and it’s billed as an “AI-powered” solution that promises local matching against a database stored on-device on a wearable computer that pairs with headset.

It’s intended to be used with set databases, and is ideal for “law enforcement and security guards on patrol,” according to a press release detailing the news. It can find up to 15 faces per frame in under one second, according to the spec sheet, and can also store a database of up to 1 million faces locally – meaning it can do its tagging without any cloud access or connectivity.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that this means it’s going to be relatively circumscribed and specific in its usage: Basically it works best when you know who you’re looking for, and that means suspects or known offenders, and potentially missing people. It’s not like it’s just constantly monitoring and recording faces all the time and measuring that against a global and growing database to attach a name and identity to everyone it sees.

Right now, it’s installed on only around 50 pairs of Vuzix Blade smart glasses for use in “security operations” in the UAE, but Vuzix is pleased about the speed with which it’s progressed from concept to active use.

Use of facial recognition among security agencies and authorities is a hot-button issue, with San Francisco becoming the first major city to ban its use earlier this year. It’s ramping up specifically for airport use, however, and is likely to cover most passengers on departing flights in the U.S. within the next four years. Meanwhile, Amazon shareholders recently struck down a proposal designed to stop the company from selling its own facial recognition tech to government customers.

Debate continues regarding how effective such efforts even are, but general comfort with the idea is clearly not going to be easily won over.

Startups Weekly: The Peloton IPO (bull vs. bear)

Hello and welcome back to Startups Weekly, a newsletter published every Saturday that dives into the week’s noteworthy venture capital deals, funds and trends. Before I dive into this week’s topic, let’s catch up a bit. Last week, I wrote about the proliferation of billion-dollar companies. Before that, I noted the uptick in beverage startup rounds. Remember, you can send me tips, suggestions and feedback to [email protected] or on Twitter @KateClarkTweets.

Now, time for some quick notes on Peloton’s confirmed initial public offering. The fitness unicorn, which sells a high-tech exercise bike and affiliated subscription to original fitness content, confidentially filed to go public earlier this week. Unfortunately, there’s no S-1 to pore through yet; all I can do for now is speculate a bit about Peloton’s long-term potential.

What I know: 

  • Peloton is profitable. Founder and chief executive John Foley said at one point that he expected 2018 revenues of $700 million, more than double 2017’s revenues of $400 million.
  • There is strong investor demand for Peloton stock. Javier Avolos, vice president at the secondary marketplace Forge, tells TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington that “investor interest [in Peloton] has been consistently strong from both institutional and retail investors. Our view is that this is a result of perceived strong performance by the company, a clear path to a liquidity event, and historically low availability of supply in the market due to restrictions around selling or transferring shares in the secondary market.”
  • Peloton, despite initially struggling to raise venture capital, has accrued nearly $1 billion in funding to date. Most recently, it raised a $550 million Series F at a $4.25 billion valuation. It’s backed by Tiger Global Management, TCV, Kleiner Perkins and others.

 

A bullish perspective: Peloton, an early player in the fitness tech space, has garnered a cult following since its founding in 2012. There is something to be said about being an early-player in a burgeoning industry — tech-enabled personal fitness equipment, that is — and Peloton has certainly proven its bike to be genre-defining technology. Plus, Peloton is actually profitable and we all know that’s rare for a Silicon Valley company. (Peloton is actually New York-based but you get the idea.)

A bearish perspective: The market for fitness tech is heating up, largely as a result of Peloton’s own success. That means increased competition. Peloton has not proven itself to be a nimble business in the slightest. As Darrell noted in his piece, in its seven years of operation, “Peloton has put out exactly two pieces of hardware, and seems unlikely to ramp that pace. The cost of their equipment makes frequent upgrade cycles unlikely, and there’s a limited field in terms of other hardware types to even consider making. If hardware innovation is your measure for success, Peloton hasn’t really shown that it’s doing enough in this category to fend of legacy players or new entrants.”

TL;DR: Peloton, unlike any other company before it, sits evenly at the intersection of fitness, software, hardware and media. One wonders how Wall Street will value a company so varied. Will Peloton be yet another example of an over-valued venture-backed unicorn that flounders once public? Or will it mature in time to triumphantly navigate the uncertain public company waters? Let me know what you think. And If you want more Peloton deets, read Darrell’s full story: Weighing Peloton’s opportunity and risks ahead of IPO.

Anyways…

Public company corner

In addition to Peloton’s IPO announcement, CrowdStrike boosted its IPO expectations. Aside from those two updates, IPO land was pretty quiet this week. Let’s check in with some recently public businesses instead.

Uber: The ride-hailing giant has let go of two key managers: its chief operating officer and chief marketing officer. All of this comes just a few weeks after it went public. On the brightside, Uber traded above its IPO price for the first time this week. The bump didn’t last long but now that the investment banks behind its IPO are allowed to share their bullish perspective publicly, things may improve. Or not.

Zoom: The video communications business posted its first earnings report this week. As you might have guessed, things are looking great for Zoom. In short, it beat estimates with revenues of $122 million in the last quarter. That’s growth of 109% year-over-year. Not bad Zoom, not bad at all.

Must reads

We cover a lot of startup and big tech news here at TechCrunch. Sometimes, the really great features writers put a lot of time and energy into fall between the cracks. With that said, I just want to take a moment this week to highlight a few of the great stories published on our site recently:

A peek inside Sequoia Capital’s low-flying, wide-reaching scout program by Connie Loizos

On the road to self-driving trucks, Starsky Robotics built a traditional trucking business by Kirsten Korosec

The Stanford connection behind Latin America’s multi-billion dollar startup renaissance by Jon Shieber 

How to calculate your event ROI by Sarah Shewey

Why four security companies just sold for $1.5B by Ron Miller 

Scooters gonna scoot

In case you missed it, Bird is in negotiations to acquire Scoot, a smaller scooter upstart with licenses to operate in the coveted market of San Francisco. Scoot was last valued at around $71 million, having raised about $47 million in equity funding to date from Scout Ventures, Vision Ridge Partners, angel investor Joanne Wilson and more. Bird, of course, is a whole lot larger, valued at $2.3 billion recently.

On top of this deal, there was no shortage of scooter news this week. Bird, for example, unveiled the Bird Cruiser, an electric vehicle that is essentially a blend between a bicycle and a moped. Here’s more on the booming scooter industry.

Startup Capital

WorldRemit raises $175M at a $900M valuation to help users send money to contacts in emerging markets 

Thumbtack is raising up to $120M on a flat valuation

Depop, a shopping app for millennials, bags $62M

Fitness startup Mirror nears $300M valuation with fresh funding

Step raises $22.5M led by Stripe to build no-fee banking services for teens

Possible Finance lands $10.5M to provide kinder short-term loans

Voatz raises $7M for its mobile voting technology

Flexible housing startup raises $2.5M

Legacy, a sperm testing and freezing service, raises $1.5M

Equity

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I discuss how a future without the SoftBank Vision Fund would look, Peloton’s IPO and data-driven investing.

Lyft sues SF over bike-share program

Lyft is suing the city of San Francisco, claiming that the city is violating its ten-year contract with Lyft that would give the company exclusive rights to operate bike-share programs. San Francisco, however, says the contract does not apply to dockless bike-share, but only station-based bike-share.

In its lawsuit, Lyft is seeking a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order to prevent the city from issuing permits to operators for stationless bike-share rentals.

Although SF previously allowed Uber-owned JUMP to operate its stationless electric bikes, that was supposed to be a one-time exception since Motivate, which Lyft eventually bought, was not yet ready to deploy its stationless electric bikes, the lawsuit states. JUMP’s pilot expires on July 9, 2019 but now the city is seeking additional operators to deploy stationless electric bikes.

“We are eager to continue investing in the regional bikeshare system with the MTC and San Francisco,” a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We need San Francisco to honor its contractual commitments to this regional program — not change the rules in the middle of the game. We are eager to quickly resolve this, so that we can deliver on our plans to bring bikes to every neighborhood in San Francisco.”

Lyft says it has tried to avoid litigation but that the SFMTA has refused to participate in its dispute process.

“As we will explain to the court, the agreement between Motivate and the City was about a docked bike share system,” John Coté, communications director for SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera said in a statement to TechCrunch.  “It does not give Lyft the right to a monopoly on bike sharing in San Francisco. Lyft can seek a permit for dockless bikes on equal footing with everyone else.”

You can see the full complaint below.

On the road to self-driving trucks, Starsky Robotics built a traditional trucking business

More than three years ago, self-driving trucks startup Starsky Robotics was founded to solve a fundamental issue with freight — a solution that CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher believes hinges on getting the human driver out from behind the wheel.

But a funny thing happened along the way. Starsky Robotics started a regular ol’ trucking company. Now, nearly half of the employees at this self-driving truck startup help run a business that uses the traditional model of employing human drivers to haul loads for customers, TechCrunch has learned.

Starsky’s trucking business, which has been operating in secret for nearly two years alongside the company’s more public pursuit of developing autonomous vehicle technology, has hauled 2,200 loads for customers. The company has 36 regular trucks that only use human drivers to haul freight. It has three autonomous trucks that are driven and supported by a handful of test drivers. Starsky also employs a number of office people who, as Seltz-Axmacher notes, “know how to run trucks.”

The CEO and co-founder contends that without the human-driven trucking piece, Starsky won’t ever have an operational, or profitable, self-driving truck business. The trucking business has generated revenue, led to key partnerships such as Schneider Logistics, Penske and Transport Enterprise Leasing, and importantly, helped build a company that works in the real world. It has also been a critical tool for recruiting and vetting safety drivers and teleoperators (or remote drivers), according to Seltz-Axmacher.

“The decision to have a trucking business interact with the real trucking world in parallel with developing the robotics piece is a necessary part of building a longstanding business in the space,” said Reilly Brennan, general partner at Trucks VC and the first institutional investor in Starsky.

Starksy, which was co-founded by Seltz-Axmacher and Kartik Tiwari, has raised $21.7 million in equity from investors including Shasta Ventures and Trucks VC.

The evolution over at Starsky illustrates the challenge that awaits the autonomous vehicle industry and the giant companies and startups operating within it. Even after engineers solve the complexity of building an AI-powered driver that’s better than a human, these companies must figure out the equally intricate task of operations. Robotaxis, autonomous delivery robots and self-driving trucks won’t matter if humans don’t use, like or trust the tech.

Figuring out the basics of operations — including the rather pedestrian and obvious ones — will mean the difference between making or losing money. Or, having a business at all.

And the stakes are high. Trucks are the backbone of the U.S. economy and moved more than 70% of all U.S. freight and generated more than $700 billion in 2017, according to the most up-to-date statistics available from the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Companies pursuing robotaxis and other autonomous vehicle programs are going to eventually wake up — if they haven’t already — to the same realities that Starsky has accepted, Brennan contends.

“The interaction with the market, particularly in logistics, is vital,” Brennan said, adding that companies pursuing robotaxis that haven’t built out and tested a consumer-facing app risk the same problems. “They need to have a business on day one, not on day 720.”

For Starsky, it started with something as basic as having a working vehicle and access to mechanics that could fix it.

Trucks, the hard way

Seltz-Axmacher admits now he underestimated how difficult trucks could be.

“Hey, it’s a truck, how hard can buying one be?,” said Seltz-Axmacher, as he described the company’s first major purchase of a truck for about $50,000. “We quickly realized that having a truck and driving a truck are not easy things to do.”

Starsky engineers retrofitted the truck, named Rosebud, with its autonomous driving system and made plans to test it at the Thunderhill Raceway about 150 miles north of San Francisco. It didn’t make it. The truck’s engine was smoking by the time it crossed the Bay Bridge. And then the truck, along with all those engineers, sat for two weeks while Seltz-Axmacher hunted for a diesel mechanic.

Self-driving truck startup Starsky Robotics began with this first, and problematic truck

The truck, pictured above, continued to break down. The company ran into more snafus, including a problem with insurance and the title of the vehicle. Starsky was going to miss a key milestone and Seltz-Axmacher was going to have to tell investors that it wasn’t because of bottlenecks in engineering, but because they didn’t know how to manage the truck part of this self-driving truck company.

The founders learned that even “average” trucks needed to go to the shop every 60 days, which is operationally complex when vehicles are traveling throughout the United States.

Starsky ended up making a key hire, Paul Schlegel, who is a veteran of trucking operations, to organize the enterprise. Schlegel, who has 32 years in the transportation industry with companies such as Schneider National and Stevens Transport, developed the trucking business that enabled autonomous trucks, but still worked in their absence. The trucking operations team is in Dallas. 

The driver pinchpoint

Seltz-Axmacher has said repeatedly that “unless you’re getting the driver out of the truck, you’re not solving anything.”

The problem in trucking is the supply of drivers. The chronic shortage has, in turn, driven up costs. For instance, the median salary for a truckload driver working a national, irregular route was more than $53,000 — a $7,000 increase from ATA’s last survey, which covered annual pay for 2013, or an increase of 15%. It’s even higher for private fleet drivers, who saw their pay rise to more than $86,000 from $73,000, or a gain of nearly 18%.

Starksy soon found that finding the right drivers was just as hard as finding the right trucks. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shows the company has reported three crashes of its manually driven trucks.

Seltz-Axmacher said they’ve had a driver make a wrong turn and have a low-hanging branch rip a hole in the side of a trailer. The most serious incident involved a new driver who took an offramp in Florida too fast and rolled the truck onto its side. No one was injured and the driver was terminated.

These drivers are critical to the autonomous program and the best of them end up becoming teleop controllers, a job that involves sitting in an office, not logging days and weeks in a truck.

Starsky is taking a dual approach to its autonomous trucks. It outfits regular trucks with a combination of sensors like radar and cameras along with software that allows long-haul trucks to drive autonomously on the highway. When the truck is about to exit, a trained remote operator, who is sitting in an office, takes over and navigates the truck to its final destination.

The promise of being able to be promoted to teleoperator is a big part of how Starsky is able to hire drivers effectively. The company contends it wouldn’t be possible to find 25 highly skilled safety and remote drivers without having a broader fleet of regular truck drivers to choose from.

Robotrucks or bust

The ultimate goal of Starsky Robotics hasn’t changed, Seltz-Axmacher said. To get there, the company recently hired Ain McKendrick as vice president of engineering, and former Tesla executive Keith Flynn to head up its hardware manufacturing to support Starsky’s fleet build. McKendrick, who co-founded Podtek and Lyve, also has experience at autonomous vehicle company Cyngn, Highfive, Netflix and Dell .

By early 2020, the company aims to have 25 autonomous trucks — a goal that is only possible if it has 100 regular trucks, he added.

The only way Starsky can scale its operations on the autonomous side is to continue to scale its regular trucking operations six months in advance. In other words, the regular trucking business is inextricably linked to the success of deploying autonomous trucks.

The company has already found that the 15-plus brokers that are regularly giving it freight to haul are ready for driverless trucks.

“Many times the brokers who have given us loads have been fairly ambivalent to whether or not we’re hauling that freight with a self-driving truck, Seltz-Axmacher said. “A lot of the concern that people might have is that this is a technology-averse industry and might not be willing to accept self-driving trucks has proven not to be true.”

Fintech platform Synapse raises $33M to build ‘the AWS of banking’

Synapse, a San Francisco-based startup that operates a platform enabling banks and fintech companies to easily develop financial services, has closed a $33 million Series B to develop new products and go after international expansion.

The investment was led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from existing backers Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital . Synapse — which recently rebranded (slightly) from ‘SynapseFi’ — announced a $17 million Series A back in September 2018 so this deal takes it to $50 million raised to date.

The startup was founded in 2014 by Bryan Keltner and India-born CEO Sankaet Pathak, who came to the U.S. to study but grew frustrating at the difficulty of opening a bank account without U.S. social security history. Inspired by his struggles, Synapse, which operated under the radar prior to that Series A deal, is focused on democratizing financial services.

Its approach to doing that is a platform-based one that makes it easy for banks and other financial companies to work with developers. The current system for working with financial institutions is frankly a mess; it involves a myriad of different standards, interfaces, code bases and other compatibility issues that cause confusion and consume time. Through developer- and bank-facing APIs, Synapse aims to make it easier for companies to connect with banks, and, in turn, for banks to automate and extend their back-end operations.

Pathak previously told us the philosophy is a “Lego brick” approach to building services. Its modules and services include payment, deposit, lending, ID verification/KYC, card issuance and investment services.

“We want to make it super easy for developers to build and scale financial products and we want to do that across the spectrum of financial products,” he told TechCrunch in an interview this week.

Synapse CEO Sankaet Pathak

“We don’t think Bank Of America, Chase and Wells Fargo will be front and center” of new fintech, he added. “We want to make it really easy for internet companies to distribute financial services.”

The product development strategy is to add “pretty much anything that we think would be an accelerant to democratizing financial services for everyone,” he explained. “We want to make these tools and features available for developers.”

Interestingly, the company has a public product roadmap — the newest version is here.

The concept of an ‘operating system for banking’ is one that resonates with the kind of investment thesis associated with A16z, and Pathak said the firm was “number one” on his list of target VCs.

With more than half of that Series A round still in the bank, Pathak explained that the Series B is less about money and more around finding “a partner who can help us on the next phase, which is very focused on expansion.”

As part of the deal, Angela Strange A16z’s fintech and enterprise-focused general partner — has joined the startup’s board. Strange, whose portfolio includes Branch, described Synapse as “the AWS of banking” for its potential to let anyone build a fintech company, paralleling the way Amazon’s cloud services let anyone, anywhere develop and deploy a web service.

Having already found a product market fit in the U.S. — where its tech reaches nearly three million end users, with five million API requests daily — Synapse is looking overseas. The first focuses are Canada and Europe, which it plans to launch in before the end of the year with initial services including payments and deposits/debit card issuance. Subsequently, the plan is to add lending and investment products next year.

Members of the Synapse team

Further down the line, Pathak said he is eager to break into Asia and, potentially, markets in Latin America and Africa, although expansions aren’t likely until 2020 at the earliest. Once things pick up, though, the startup is aiming to enter two “key” markets per year alongside one “underserved” one.

“We’ve been preparing for [global expansion] for a while,” he said, pointing out that the startup has built key tech in-house, including computer vision capabilities.

“Our goal is to be in every country that’s not at war or under sanction from the U.S,” Pathak added.

At home, the company is looking to add a raft of new services for customers. That includes improvements and new features for card issuance, brokerage accounts, new areas for its loans product, more detailed KYC and identification and a chatbot platform.

Outside of product, the company is pushing to make its platform a self-service one to remove friction for developers who want to use Synapse services, and there are plans to launch a seed investment program that’ll help Synapse developer partners connect with investors. Interesting, the latter platform could see Synapse join investment rounds by offering credit for its services.

More generally on financial matters, the Synapse CEO said the company reached $12 million ARR last year. This year, he is aiming to double that number through growth that, he maintains, is sustainable.

“If we stop hiring, we could break even and be profitable in three to four months,” said Pathak. “I like to keep the burn like that… it stabilizes us as a company.”

Postmates taps longtime Apple engineer to boost autonomous delivery efforts

Postmates has hired Apple veteran and author Ken Kocienda as a principal software engineer at Postmates X, the team building the food delivery company’s semi-autonomous sidewalk rover, Serve.

Kocienda, author of “Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs,” spent 15 years at Apple focused on human interface design, collaborating with engineers to develop the first iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch. Kocienda left Apple in 2017 to focus on his book.

Now, he’s picked Postmates as his next project, citing the team’s spirit and energy as motivation for joining.

“My goal throughout my career has not been technology for the sake of opportunity, I am interested in making product experiences that people out in the world will find useful and meaningful,” Kocienda tells TechCrunch. “It’s not about the technology or just the design, it’s about the technology and design coming together.”


Postmates unveiled Serve, their human-like delivery robot, in December. The semi-autonomous rover uses cameras and lidar to navigate sidewalks and can carry 50 pounds for up to 25 miles after one charge. To ensure safety, the team has a human pilot remotely monitoring the Serve fleets, and each rover has a “Help” button, touchscreen and video chat display for customers or passers-by to use if necessary. The company said they had planned to roll out the bots in 2019, though no pilots have been officially announced yet.

Kocienda said he is working on a variety of tasks within the Postmates X team. Just yesterday, he was focused on creating more expressions for the robot.

“We are spending a lot of time going in and refining and inventing new ways that Serve can communicate,” he said. “It’s not like we are a robotics startup. We have a business rolling, so part of what is interesting to me is that we can mine the data we have and use the intelligence we have to improve the [Serve] experience end-to-end.”

The purpose of Postmates’ incoming fleet of semi-autonomous rovers is not to eliminate the role of human drivers but to make their routes more efficient. If, say, a Postmates customer orders food from a nearby restaurant, Serve could pick up the food, potentially even get back into a car with a human driver, then get back out of the car to complete the last-mile delivery. This saves the driver from sitting in traffic and gets the customer their food much faster, ideally.

One questions how humans might respond to these rovers, however, if they are roaming the streets independently. To protect them from damage or defacement, Postmates is making them as human-like as possible, complete with a set of “eyes.”

“We want to make it socially intelligent,” Kocienda explained. “We want people, when they see Serve going down the street, to smile at it and to be happy to see it there … It’s going to have this halo effect for Postmates. It’s going to be a brand ambassador for Postmates.”

Postmates, headquartered in San Francisco, is expected to go public later this year. Most recently, the company lined up a $100 million pre-IPO financing that valued the business at $1.85 billion. Postmates is backed by Tiger Global, BlackRock, Spark Capital, Uncork Capital, Founders Fund, Slow Ventures and others.

‘Socially Inept,’ a comedy startup founded by Microsoft employees, roasts tech bros

Everyone gets a kick out of mocking the quintessential San Francisco techie, Patagonia vest and all. ‘Socially Inept,’ a new traveling comedy cohort, is making a business out of it.

The group has been roasting the tech scene in hubs across the U.S., including Seattle, where the company is based, as well as Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco, since last summer.

It’s made out of current and former techies themselves. Co-founders Jesse Warren and Austin Nasso have a history at Microsoft . Warren recently left his full-time gig at the tech giant, while Nasso has yet to let go of the 9 to 5. Lee Yang, a producer, is concurrently building another startup called Epitome.io.

The hope is that the traveling comedy show will gain followers across the U.S. and perform shows in dozens of cities. That way, the entire team can commit to the effort full-time.

At their shows, Socially Inept taps local comedic talent to roast willing local tech workers.

“On the one hand they are wealthy and intelligent which puts them in a sort of ‘elevated status.’ It’s hard to really punch down on a recent college grad who makes $130,000 per year,” Warren recently told GeekWire. “However, despite their high status they typically have many funny characteristics and interests such as their social awkwardness, obsession with self-help, inability to properly dress themselves, and fascination with the television series ‘My Little Pony.'”

The show is making its way back to San Francisco this Thursday for a night of tech-themed insults at Cobb’s Comedy Club. Warren and Nasso, along with local comedians Tony Zavala and Julie Ash will be doing the honors of roasting.