Aurora cofounder and CEO Chris Urmson on the company’s new investor, Amazon, and much more

You might not think of self-driving technologies and politics having much in common, but at least in one way, they overlap meaningfully: yesterday’s enemy can be tomorrow’s ally.

Such was the message we gleaned Thursday night, at a small industry event in San Francisco, where we had the chance to sit down with Chris Urmson, the cofounder and CEO of Aurora, a company that (among many others) is endeavoring to make self-driving technologies a safer and more widely adopted alternative to human drivers.

It was a big day for Urmson. Earlier the same day, his two-year-old company announced a whopping $530 million in Series B funding, a round that was led by top firm Sequoia Capital and that included “significant investment” from T. Rowe Price and Amazon.

The financing for Aurora — which is building what it calls a “driver” technology that it expects to eventually integrate into cars built by Volkswagen, Hyundai, and China’s Byton, among others —  is highly notable, even in a sea of giant fundings. Not only does it represent Sequoia’s biggest bet yet on any kind of self-driving technology, it’s also an “incredible endorsement” from T. Rowe Price, said Urmson Thursday night, suggesting it demonstrates that the money management giant “thinks long term and strategically [that] we’re the independent option to self-driving cars.”

Even more telling, perhaps, is the participation of Amazon, which is in constant competition to be the world’s most valuable company, and whose involvement could lead to variety of scenarios down the road, from Aurora powering delivery fleets overseen by Amazon, to Amazon acquiring Aurora outright. Amazon has already begun marketing more aggressively to global car companies and Tier 1 suppliers that are focused on building connected products, saying its AWS platform can help them speed their pace of innovation and lower their cost structures. In November, it also debuted a global, autonomous racing league for 1/18th scale, radio-controlled, self-driving four-wheeled race cars that are designed to help developers learn about reinforcement learning, a type of machine learning. Imagine what it could learn from Aurora.

Indeed, at the event, Urmson said that as Aurora had “constructed our funding round, [we were] very much thinking strategically about how to be successful in our mission of building a driver. And one thing that a driver can do is move people, but it can also move goods. And it’s harder to think of a company where moving goods is more important than Amazon.” Added Urmson, “Having the opportunity to have them partner with us in this funding round, and [talk about] what we might build in the future is awesome.” (Aurora’s site also now features language about “transforming the way people and goods move.”)

The interest of Amazon, T. Rowe, Sequoia and Aurora’s other backers isn’t surprising. Urmson was the formal technical lead of Google’s self-driving car program (now Waymo) . One of his cofounders, Drew Bagnell, is a machine learning expert who still teaches at Carnegie Mellon and was formerly the head of Uber’s autonomy and perception team. Aurora’s third cofounder is Sterling Anderson, the former program manager of Tesla’s Autopilot team.

Aurora’s big round seemingly spooked Tesla investors, in fact, with shares in the electric car maker dropping as a media outlets reported on the details. The development seems like just the type of possibility that had Tesla CEO Elon Musk unsettled when Aurora got off the ground a couple of years ago, and Tesla almost immediately filed a lawsuit against it, accusing Urmson and Anderson of trying poach at least a dozen Tesla engineers and accusing Anderson of taking confidential information and destroying the  evidence “in an effort to cover his tracks.”

That suit was dropped two and a half weeks later in a settlement that saw Aurora pay $100,000. Anderson said at the time the amount was meant to cover the cost of an independent auditor to scour Aurora’s systems for confidential Tesla information. Urmson reiterated on Thursday night that it was purely an “economic decision” meant to keep Aurora from getting further embroiled in an expansive spat.

But Urmson, who has previously called the lawsuit “classy,” didn’t take the bait on Thursday when asked about Musk, including whether he has talked in the last two years with Musk (no), and whether Aurora might need Tesla in the future (possibly). Instead of lord Aurora’s momentum over the company, Urmson said that Aurora and Tesla “got off on the wrong foot.” Laughing a bit, he went on to lavish some praise on the self-driving technology that lives inside Tesla cars, adding that “if there’s an opportunity to work them in the future, that’d be great.”

Aurora, which is also competing for now against the likes of Uber, also sees Uber as a potential partner down the line, said Urmson. Asked about the company’s costly self-driving efforts, whose scale has been drastically downsized in the eleven months since one of its vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Urmson noted simply that Aurora is “in the business of delivering the driver, and Uber needs a lot of drivers, so we think it would be wonder to partner with them, to partner with Lyft, to partner [with companies with similar ambitions] globally. We see those companies as partners in the future.”

He’d added when asked for more specifics that there’s “nothing to talk about right now.”

Before Thursday’s event, Aurora had sent us some more detailed information about the four divisions that currently employ the 200 people that make up the company, a number that will obviously expand with its new round, as will the testing it’s doing, both on California roads and in Pittsburgh, where it also has a sizable presence. We didn’t have a chance to run them during our conversation with Urmson, but we thought they were interesting and that you might think so, too.

Below, for example, is the “hub” of the Aurora Driver. This is the computer system that powers, coordinates and fuses signals from all of the vehicle’s sensors, executes the software and controls the vehicle. Aurora says it’s designing the Aurora Driver to seamlessly integrate with a wide variety of vehicle platforms from different makes, models and classes with the goal of delivering the benefits of its technology broadly.

Below is a visual representation of Aurora’s perception system, which the company says is able to understand complex urban environments where vehicles need to safely navigate amid many moving objects, including bikes, scooters, pedestrians, and cars.

It didn’t imagine it would at the outset, but Aurora is building its own mapping system to ensure what it (naturally) calls the highest level of precision and scalability, so vehicles powered by the company can understand where they are and update the maps as the world changes.

We asked Urmson if, when the tech is finally ready to go into cars, they will white-label the technology or else use Aurora’s brand as a selling point. He said the matter hasn’t been decided yet but seemed to suggest that Aurora is leaning in the latter direction. He also said the technology would be installed on the carmakers’ factory floors (with Aurora’s help).

One of the ways that Aurora says it’s able to efficiently develop a robust “driver” is to build its own simulation system. It uses its simulator to test its software with different scenarios that vehicles encounter on the road, which it says enables repeatable testing that’s impossible to achieve by just driving more miles.

Aurora’s motion planning team works closely with the perception team to create a system that both detects the important objects on and around the road, and tries to accurately predict how they will move in the future. The ability to capture, understand, and predict the motion of other objects is critical if the tech is going to navigate real world scenarios in dense urban environments, and Urmson has said in the past that Aurora has crafted its related workflow in a way that’s superior to competitors that send the technology back and forth.

Specifically, he told The Atlantic last year: “The classic way you engineer a system like this is that you have a team working on perception. They go out and make it as good as they can and they get to a plateau and hand it off to the motion-planning people. And they write the thing that figures out where to stop or how to change a lane and it deals with all the noise that’s in the perception system because it’s not seeing the world perfectly. It has errors. Maybe it thinks it’s moving a little faster or slower than it is. Maybe every once in a while it generates a false positive. The motion-planning system has to respond to that.

“So the motion-planning people are lagging behind the perception people, but they get it all dialed in and it’s working well enough—as well as it can with that level of perception—and then the perception people say, ‘Oh, but we’ve got a new push [of code].’ Then the motion-planning people are behind the eight ball again, and their system is breaking when it shouldn’t.”

We also asked Urmson about Google, whose self-driving unit was renamed Waymo as it spun out from the Alphabet umbrella as its own company. He was highly diplomatic, saying only good things about the company and, when asked if they’d ever challenged him on anything since leaving, answering that they had not.

Still, he told as one of the biggest advantage that Aurora enjoys is that it was able to use the learnings of its three founders and to start from scratch, whereas the big companies from which each has come cannot completely start over.

As he told TechCrunch in a separate interview last year when asked how Aurora tests its technology, then it comes to self-driving tech, size matters less than one might imagine. “There’s this really easy metric that everyone is using, which is number of miles driven, and it’s one of those things that was really convenient for me in my old place [Google] because we’re out there and we were doing a hell of a lot more than anybody else was at the time, and so it was an easy number to talk about. What’s lost in that, though, is it’s not really the volume of the miles that you drive.” It’s about the quality of the data, he’d continued, suggesting that, for now, at least, Aurora’s is hard to beat.

Spotify, eBay set standard for fertility benefits, study finds

The technology sector awards women and same-sex couples the most comprehensive fertility benefit packages, according to a survey by FertilityIQ, an online platform for fertility patients to review doctors and research treatments.

The company asked 30,000 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) patients across industries about their employers’ — or their spouse’s employer’s’ — 2019 fertility treatment policy, and allocated points based on their support for IVF procedures and egg freezing, among other services.

Silicon Valley semiconductor business Analog Devices and eBay led the ranking. The two companies offer employees unlimited IVF cycles with no pre-authorization requirement, meaning employees do not need permission from insurance providers before seeking certain medical services. Pre-authorization has historically impacted lesbian, gay or unpartnered employees from accessing care quickly or at all, FertilityIQ co-founder Jake Anderson explained

Spotify, Adobe, Lyft, Facebook and Pinterest were amongst the highest-ranked technology businesses, too.

“I think a lot of people see the tech sector as being unenlightened when it comes to family values but it’s still the sector that makes the fertility benefits the most widely acceptable,” Anderson, a former consumer internet investor at Sequoia Capital, told TechCrunch.

FertilityIQ’s fertility benefits survey results.

Despite an initial outpouring of skepticism, Facebook and Apple became leaders in the fertility benefit category when they began paying for their female employees to freeze their eggs in 2014. Since then, smaller firms have opted to beef up those benefits to stay competitive with their much larger and richer counterparts.

“The Lyfts, the Airbnbs and the Ubers of the world, who clearly need to compete for those companies for talent, have effectively matched those companies dollar-for-dollar despite a much smaller war-chest,” Anderson said. “These companies that are worth 1/1000th of these bigger companies are effectively going toe-to-toe to offer whatever women need.”

Anderson and his wife, FertilityIQ co-founder Deborah Anderson, noticed improved benefits in 2018 from companies implicated by the #MeToo movement, such as Vice Media, Under Armour and Uber.

“Silicon Valley is notorious for talent moving around on you but it’s probably not coincidental that some of the companies that were in the spotlight in the #MeToo movement have added really generous benefits,” Deborah Anderson told TechCrunch.

Uber, for example, now pays for its employees to complete two IVF cycles but still requires pre-authorization.

One in 7 Americans struggle with infertility and the rate of IVF procedures only continues to increase, with the latest data indicating a 15 percent year-over-year growth rate. IVF costs roughly $22,000 per cycle, per FertilityIQ’s survey, a cost which has similarly increased 15 percent since 2015.

That’s a whole lot of cash for a fertility patient to dole out. If companies foot the bill, they’ll have a better shot at retaining talent.

“Best we can tell, there is no question that employees that get this benefit and use it are more loyal and more likely to stick around,” Jake Anderson said. “The company that helps you build your family is the company that you remain committed to.”

Startups Weekly: Is Munchery the Fyre Festival of startups?

It was a tough week. Journalists around the U.S. were hit hard by layoffs, from HuffPost to BuzzFeed News to Verizon Media Group, which owns this very site. The government entered day 35 of the shutdown before President Donald Trump agreed to a short-term deal to reopen it for three weeks. And in the startup world, a once high-flying, venture-subsidized food delivery startup crashed and burned, leaving a cluster of small businesses in its wreckage.

Some good things happened too — we’ll get to those.

  1. Munchery fails to pay its debts

In an email to customers on Monday, Munchery announced it would cease operations, effective immediately. It, however, failed to notify any of its vendors, small businesses in San Francisco that had supplied baked goods to the startup for years. I talked to several of those business owners about what they’re owed and what the sudden disappearance of Munchery means for them.

  1. #Theranos #Content

If you haven’t read John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” stop reading this newsletter right now and go get yourself a copy. If you love to read, watch and listen to the Theranos saga as much as I do, you’ll be glad to hear there’s some fresh Theranos content released to the world this week. Called “The Dropout,” a new ABC documentary and an accompanying podcast about Theranos features never-before-aired depositions. Plus, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reviews the Theranos documentary, “The Inventor,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week.

  1. Deal of the week

Confluent, the developer of a streaming data technology that processes massive amounts of information in real time, announced a $125 million Series D round on an enormous $2.5 billion valuation (up 5x from its Series C valuation). The round was led by existing investor Sequoia Capital, with participation from other top-tier VCs Index Ventures and Benchmark.

  1. Wag founders ditch dogs for bikes

Jonathan and Joshua Viner, the founders of the SoftBank-backed dog walking startup Wag, launched Wheels this week, an electric bike-share startup with a $37 million funding from Tenaya Capital, Bullpen Capital, Naval Ravikant and others.

  1. Go-Jek makes progress on a $2B round

Indonesia-headquartered Go-Jek has closed an initial chunk of what it hopes will be a $2 billion round after a collection of existing investors, including Google, Tencent and JD.com, agreed to put around $920 million toward it, according to TechCrunch’s Southeast Asia reporter Jon Russell. The deal, which we understand could be announced as soon as next week, will value Go-Jek’s business at around $9.5 billion.

  1. Knowledge center

There’s been a lot of chatter around direct listings since Spotify opted to go public via the untraditional route in 2018, but what exactly is a direct listing… We asked a panel of six experts: “What are the implications of direct listing tech IPOs for financial services, regulation, venture capital and capital markets activity?” 

Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets

  1. Contraceptive deserts

Through telemedicine and direct-to-consumer sales platforms, startups are streamlining the historically arduous process of accessing contraception. The latest effort to secure a significant financing round is The Pill Club, an online birth control prescription and delivery service. This week, the consumer-focused investor VMG Partners led its $51 million Series B. 

  1. More startup cash
  1. Fundraising activity

Sunil Nagaraj spent years investing in startups at Bessemer Venture Partners, but he was itching to meet with younger companies and strike out on his own. So in the summer of 2017, he did, and now, Nagaraj said he’s closed Ubiquity Ventures’ debut fund with $30 million. March Capital Partners, the Los Angeles-based venture capital firm, raised $300 million for its latest fund. Plus, Zynga founder Mark Pincus is reportedly raising up to $700 million for a new investment fund, called Reinvent Capital, that will focus on publicly traded tech companies in need of strategic restructuring.

  1. Finally, meet the startups in Alchemist’s 20th cohort

A mental health startup, a construction tech business and a fintech company, among others. Take a quick look at the startups that just completed Alchemist’s six-month accelerator program.

  1. Listen to me talk

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm, TechCrunch’s Silicon Valley editor Connie Loizos and I chatted about Munchery’s downfall, The Pill Club’s mission to make birth control more accessible and the VC slowdown in China.

 

Startups Weekly: Will Trump ruin the unicorn IPOs of our dreams?

The government shutdown entered its 21st day on Friday, upping concerns of potentially long-lasting impacts on the U.S. stock market. Private market investors around the country applauded when Uber finally filed documents with the SEC to go public. Others were giddy to hear Lyft, Pinterest, Postmates and Slack (via a direct listing, according to the latest reports) were likely to IPO in 2019, too.

Unfortunately, floats that seemed imminent may not actually surface until the second half of 2019 — that is unless President Donald Trump and other political leaders are able to reach an agreement on the federal budget ASAP.  This week, we explored the government’s shutdown’s connection to tech IPOs, recounted the demise of a well-funded AR project and introduced readers to an AI-enabled self-checkout shopping cart.

1. Postmates gets pre-IPO cash

The company, an early entrant to the billion-dollar food delivery wars, raised what will likely be its last round of private capital. The $100 million cash infusion was led by BlackRock and valued Postmates at $1.85 billion, up from the $1.2 billion valuation it garnered with its unicorn round in 2018.

2. Uber’s IPO may not be as eye-popping as we expected

To be fair, I don’t think many of us really believed the ride-hailing giant could debut with a $120 billion initial market cap. And can speculate on Uber’s valuation for days (the latest reports estimate a $90 billion IPO), but ultimately Wall Street will determine just how high Uber will fly. For now, all we can do is sit and wait for the company to relinquish its S-1 to the masses.

3. Deal of the week

N26, a German fintech startup, raised $300 million in a round led by Insight Venture Partners at a $2.7 billion valuation. TechCrunch’s Romain Dillet spoke with co-founder and CEO Valentin Stalf about the company’s global investors, financials and what the future holds for N26.

4. On the market

Bird is in the process of raising an additional $300 million on a flat pre-money valuation of $2 billion. The e-scooter startup has already raised a ton of capital in a very short time and a fresh financing would come at a time when many investors are losing faith in scooter startups’ claims to be the solution to the problem of last-mile transportation, as companies in the space display poor unit economics, faulty batteries and a general air of undependability. Plus, Aurora, the developer of a full-stack self-driving software system for automobile manufacturers, is raising at least $500 million in equity funding at more than a $2 billion valuation in a round expected to be led by new investor Sequoia Capital.


Here’s your weekly reminder to send me tips, suggestions and more to [email protected] or @KateClarkTweets


5. A unicorn’s deal downsizes

WeWork, a co-working giant backed with billions, had planned on securing a $16 billion investment from existing backer SoftBank . Well, that’s not exactly what happened. And, oh yeah, they rebranded.

6. A startup collapses

After 20 long years, augmented reality glasses pioneer ODG has been left with just a skeleton crew after acquisition deals from Facebook and Magic Leap fell through. Here’s a story of a startup with $58 million in venture capital backing that failed to deliver on its promises.

7. Data point

Seed activity for U.S. startups has declined for the fourth straight year, as median deal sizes increased at every stage of venture capital.

8. Meanwhile, in startup land…

This week edtech startup Emeritus, a U.S.-Indian company that partners with universities to offer digital courses, landed a $40 million Series C round led by Sequoia India. Badi, which uses an algorithm to help millennials find roommates, brought in a $30 million Series B led by Goodwater Capital. And Mr Jeff, an on-demand laundry service startup, bagged a $12 million Series A.

9. Finally, Meet Caper, the AI self-checkout shopping cart

The startup, which makes a shopping cart with a built-in barcode scanner and credit card swiper, has revealed a total of $3 million, including a $2.15 million seed round led by First Round Capital .

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Distinguished VCs back wholesale marketplace Faire with $100M at a $535M valuation

A slew of venture capitalists known for high-profile exits — Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures, Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures, Alfred Lin of Sequoia Capital and Alex Taussig of Lightspeed Venture Partners — have invested in Faire (formerly known as Indigo Fair), a 2-year-old wholesale marketplace for artisanal products.

A quick glance at Faire suggests it’s a combination of Pinterest and Etsy, complete with trendy, pastel stationery, soap, baby products and more, all made by independent artisans and sold to retailers. Faire has today announced a $100 million fundraise across two financing rounds: a $40 million Series B led by Taussig at Lightspeed and a $60 million Series C led by Y Combinator’s Continuity fund. New investors Founders Fund, the venture firm founded by Peter Thiel, and DST Global also participated. The business has previously brought in a total of $16 million.

The latest financing values Faire at $535 million, according to a source familiar with the deal.

If you’re feeling a little bit of déjà vu, that’s because a similar startup also raised a sizeable round of venture capital funding, announced today. That’s Minted . The 10-year-old company, best known for its wide assortment of wedding invitations and stationery, raised $208 million led by Permira, with participation from T. Rowe Price. Though Minted is first and foremost a consumer-facing marketplace, it plans to double down on its wholesale business with its latest infusion of capital, setting it up to be among Faire’s biggest competitors.

Like Minted, Faire leverages artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to forecast which products will fly off its virtual shelves in order to to source and manage inventory as efficiently as possible. The approach appears to be working; Faire says it has 15,000 retailers actively purchasing from its platform — a 3,140 percent year-over-year increase. It’s garnered $100 million in run rate sales and has expanded its community of artists 445 percent YoY, to 2,000.

The company, headquartered in San Francisco, with offices in Ontario and Waterloo, was founded by three former Square employees: chief executive officer Max Rhodes, who was product manager on a variety of strategic initiatives, including Square Capital and Square Cash; chief data officer Daniele Perito, who led risk and security for Square Cash; and chief technology officer Marcelo Cortes, a former engineering lead for Square Cash.

“Our mission at Faire is to empower entrepreneurs to chase their dreams,” Rhodes wrote in a blog post this morning. “We believe entrepreneurship is a calling. Starting a business provides a level of autonomy and fulfillment that’s become difficult to find for many elsewhere in the economy. With this in mind, we built Faire to help entrepreneurs on both sides of our marketplace succeed.”

China’s Infervision is helping 280 hospitals worldwide detect cancers from images

Until recently, humans have relied on the trained eyes of doctors to diagnose diseases from medical images.

Beijing-based Infervision is among a handful of artificial intelligence startups around the world racing to improve medical imaging analysis through deep learning, the same technology that powers face recognition and autonomous driving.

The startup, which has to date raised $70 million from leading investors like Sequoia Capital China, began by picking out cancerous lung cells, a prevalent cause of death in China. At the Radiological Society of North America’s annual conference in Chicago this week, the three-year-old company announced extending its computer vision prowess to other chest-related conditions like cardiac calcification.

“By adding more scenarios under which our AI works, we are able to offer more help to doctors,” Chen Kuan, founder and chief executive officer of Infervision, told TechCrunch. While a doctor can spot dozens of diseases from one single image scan, AI needs to be taught how to identify multiple target objects in one go.

But Chen says machines already outstrip humans in other aspects. For one, they are much faster readers. It normally takes doctors 15 to 20 minutes to scrutinize one image, whereas Infervision’s AI can process the visuals and put together a report under 30 seconds.

AI also addresses the longstanding issue of misdiagnosis. Chinese clinical newspaper Medical Weekly reported that doctors with less than five years’ experience only got their answers right 44 percent of the time when diagnosing black lung, a disease common among coal miners. And research from Zhejiang University that examined autopsies between 1950 to 2009 found that the total clinical misdiagnosis rate averaged 46 percent.

“Doctors work long hours and are constantly under tremendous stress, which can lead to errors,” suggested Chen.

The founder claimed that his company is able to improve the accuracy rate by 20 percent. AI can also fill in for doctors in remote hinterlands where healthcare provision falls short, which is often the case in China.

Winning the first client

infervision medical imaging

A report on bone fractures produced by Infervision’s medical imaging tool

Like any deep learning company, Infervision needs to keep training its algorithms with data from varied sources. As of this week, the startup is working with 280 hospitals — among which 20 are outside of China — and steadily adding a dozen new partners weekly. It also claims that 70 percent of China’s top-tier hospitals use its lung-specific AI tool.

But the firm has had a rough start.

Chen, a native of Shenzhen in south China, founded Infervision after dropping out of his doctoral program at the University of Chicago where he studied under Nobel-winning economist James Heckman. For the first six months of his entrepreneurial journey, Chen knocked on the doors of 40 hospitals across China — to no avail.

“Medical AI was still a novelty then. Hospitals are by nature conservative because they have to protect patients, which make them reluctant to partner with outsiders,” Chen recalled.

Eventually, Sichuan Provincial People’s Hospital gave Infervision a shot. Chen with his two founding members got hold of a small batch of image data, moved into a tiny apartment next to the hospital, and got the company underway.

“We observed how doctors work, explained to them how AI works, listened to their complaints, and iterated our product,” said Chen. Infervision’s product proved adept, and its name soon gathered steam among more healthcare professionals.

“Hospitals are risk-averse, but as soon as one of them likes us, it goes out to spread the word and other hospitals will soon find us. The medical industry is very tight-knit,” the founder said.

It also helps that AI has evolved from a fringe invention to a norm in healthcare over the past few years, and hospitals start actively seeking help from tech startups.

Infervision has stumbled in its foreign markets as well. In the U.S., for example, Infervision is restricted to visiting doctors only upon appointments, which slows product iteration.

Chen also admitted that many western hospitals did not trust that a Chinese startup could provide state-of-the-art technology. But they welcomed Infervision in as soon as they found out what it’s able to achieve, which is in part thanks to its data treasure — up to 26,000 images a day.

“Regardless of their technological capability, Chinese startups are blessed with access to mountains of data that no startups elsewhere in the world could match. That’s an immediate advantage,” said Chen.

There’s no lack of rivalry in China’s massive medical industry. Yitu, a pivotal player that also applies its AI to surveillance and fintech, unveiled a cancer detection tool at the Chicago radiological conference this week.

Infervision, which generates revenues by charging fees for its AI solution as a service, says that down the road, it will prioritize product development for conditions that incur higher social costs, such as cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases.

In venture capital, it’s still the age of the unicorn

This month marks the 5-year anniversary of Aileen Lee’s landmark article, “Welcome To The Unicorn Club”.

At the time, the piece defined a new breed of startup — the $1 billion privately held company. When Lee did her first count, there were 39 “unicorns”; an improbable, but not impossible number.. Today, the once-scarce unicorn has become a global herd with 376 companies on the roster and counting.

But the proliferation of unicorns begs raises certain questions. Is this new breed of unicorn artificially created? Could these magical companies see their valuations slip and fall out of the herd? Does this indicate an irrational exuberance where investors are engaging in wish fulfilment and creating magic where none actually existed?

List of “unicorn” companies worth more than $1 billion as of the third quarter of 2018

There’s a new “unicorn” born every four days

The first change has been to the geographic composition and private company requirement of the list. The original qualification for the unicorn study was “U.S.-based software companies started since 2003 and valued at over $1 billion by public or private market investors.” The unicorn definition has changed and here is the popular and wiki page definition we all use today: “A unicorn is a privately held startup company with a current valuation of US$1 billion or more.”

Beyond the expansion of the definition of terms to include a slew of companies from all over the globe, there’s been a concurrent expansion in the number of startup technology companies to achieve unicorn status. There is a tenfold increase in annual unicorn production.

Indeed, while the unicorn is still rare but not as rare as before. Five years ago, roughly ten unicorns were being created a year, but we are approaching one hundred new unicorns a year in 2018.

As of November 8, we have seen eighty one newly minted unicorns this year, which means we have one new unicorn every four days.

There are unicorn-sized rounds every day

These unicorns are also finding their horns thanks to the newly popularized phenomena of mega rounds which raise $100 million or more. These deals are ten times more common now, than they were only five years ago.   

Back in 2013, there were only about four mega rounds a month, but now there are forty mega rounds a month based on Crunchbase data. In fact, starting from 2015, public market IPO has for the first time no longer been the major funding source for unicorn size companies.

Unicorns have been raising money from both traditional venture capital but also more from the non-traditional venture capital such as SoftBank, sovereign wealth funds, private equity funds, and mutual funds.

Investors are chasing the value creation opportunity.   Most people probably did not realize that Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle all debuted on public markets for less than a $1 billion market cap (in fact only Microsoft topped $500 million), but today they together are worth more than $2 trillion dollars  

It means tremendous value was created after those companies came to the public market.  Today, investors are realizing the future giant’s value creation has been moved to the “pre-IPO” unicorn stage and investors don’t want to miss out.

To put things in perspective, investors globally deployed $13 billion in almost 20,000 seed & angel deals, and SoftBank was able to deploy the same $13 billion amount in just 2 deals (Uber and WeWork).  The SoftBank type of non-traditional venture world literally redefined “pre-IPO” and created a new category for venture capital investment.

Unicorns are staying private longer

That means the current herd of unicorns are choosing to stay private longer. Thanks to the expansion of shareholders private companies can rack up under the JOBS Act of 2012; the massive amount of funding available in the private market; and the desire of founders to work with investors who understand their reluctance to be beholden to public markets.

Elon Musk was thinking about taking Tesla private because he was concerned about optimizing for quarterly earning reports and having to deal with the overhead, distractions, and shorts in the public market.  Even though it did not happen in the end, it reflects the mentality of many entrepreneurs of the unicorn club. That said, most unicorn CEOs know the public market is still the destiny, as the pressure from investors to go IPO will kick in sooner or later, and investors expect more governance and financial transparency in the longer run.

Unicorns are breeding outside of the U.S. too

Finally, the current herd of unicorns now have a strong global presence, with Chinese companies leading the charge along with US unicorns. A recent Crunchbase graph indicated about 40% of unicorns are from China,, 40% from US, and the rest from other parts of the world.

Back in 2013, the “unicorn” is primarily a concept for US companies only, and there were only 3 unicorn size startups in China (Xiaomi, DJI, Vancl) anyways.  Another change in the unicorn landscape is that, China contributed predominantly consumer-oriented unicorns, while the US unicorns have always maintained a good balance between enterprise-oriented and consumer-oriented companies.  One of the stunning indications that China has thriving consumer-oriented unicorns is that China leads US in mobile payment volume by hundredfold.

The fundamentals of entrepreneurship remain the same

Despite the dramatic change of the capital market, a lot of the insights in Lee’s 5-year old blog are still very relevant to early stage entrepreneurs today.

For example, in her study, most unicorns had co-founders rather than a single founder, and many of the co-founders had a history of working together in the past.

This type of pattern continues to hold true for unicorns in the U.S. and in China. For instance, the co-founders of Meituan (a $50 billion market cap company on its IPO day in September 2018) went to school together and had co-founded a company before

There have been other changes. In the past three months alone, four new US enterprise-oriented unicorns have emerged by selling directly to developers instead of to the traditional IT or business buyers; three China enterprise-oriented SaaS companies were able to raise mega rounds.  These numbers were unheard of five years ago and show some interesting hints for entrepreneurs curious about how to breed their own unicorn.

The new normal is reshaping venture capital 

Once in a while, we see eye-catching headlines like “bubble is larger than it was in 2000.”   The reality is companies funded by venture capital increased by more than 100,000 in the past five years too. So the unicorn is still as rare as one in one thousand in the venture backed community.

What’s changing behind the increasing number of unicorns is the new normal for both investors and entrepreneurs. Mega rounds are the new normal; staying private longer is the new normal; and the global composition of the unicorn club is the new normal. 

Just look at the evidence in the venture industry itself. Sequoia Capital, the bellwether of venture capital, raised a whopping $8 billion global growth mega fund earlier this year under pressure from SoftBank and its $100 billion mega-fund. And Greylock Partners, known for its focus and success in leading early stage investment, recently led a unicorn round for the first time in its 53-year history.  

It’s proof that just as venture capitalists have created a new breed of startups, the new startups and their demands are reshaping venture capital to continue to support the the companies they’ve created.

Mexican venture firm ALL VP has a $73 million first close on its latest fund

Buoyed by international attention from U.S. and Chinese investors and technology companies, new financing keeps flowing into the coffers of Latin American venture capital firms.

One day after the Brazilian-based pan-Latin American announced the close of its $150 million latest fund comes word from our sources that ALL VP, the Mexico City-based, early stage technology investor, has held a first close of $73 million for its latest investment vehicle.

The firm launched its first $6 million investment vehicle in 2012, according to CrunchBase, just as Mexico’s former President Enrique Peña Nieto was coming to power with a pro-business platform. One which emphasized technology development as part of its strategy for encouraging economic growth.

ALL VP founding partner Fernando Lelo de Larrea said he could not speak about ongoing fundraising plans.

And while the broader economy has stumbled somewhat since Nieto took office, high technology businesses in Mexico are surging. In the first half of 2018, 82 Mexican startup companies raised $154 million in funding, according to data from the Latin American Venture Capital Association. It makes the nation the second most active market by number of deals — with a number of those deals occurring in later stage transactions.

In this, Mexico is something of a mirror for technology businesses across Latin America. While Brazilian startup companies have captured 73% of venture investment into Latin America — raising nearly $1.4 billion in financing — Peru, Chile, Colombia and Argentina are all showing significant growth. Indeed, some $188 million was invested into 23 startups in Colombia in the first half of the year. 

Overall, the region pulled in $780 million in financing in the first six months of 2018, besting the total amount of capital raised in all of 2016.

It’s against this backdrop of surging startup growth that funds like ALL VP are raising new cash.

Indeed, at $73 million the first close for the firm’s latest fund more than doubles the size of ALL VP’s capital under management.

ALL VP management team

But limited partners can also point to a burgeoning track record of success for the Mexican firm. ALL VP was one of the early investors in Cornershop — a delivery company acquired by Walmart for $225 million earlier this year. Cornershop had previously raised just $31.5 million and the bulk of that was a $21 million round from the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, Accel.

International acquirers are making serious moves in the Latin American market, with Walmart only one example of the types of companies that are shopping for technology startups in the region. The starting gun for Latin American startups stellar year was actually the DiDi acquisition of the ride-hailing company 99 for $1 billion back in January.

That, in turn, is drawing the attention of early stage investors. In fact, it’s venture capital firms from the U.S. and international investors like Naspers (from South Africa) and Chinese technology giants that are fueling the sky-high valuations of some of the region’s most successful startups.

Loggi, a logistics company raised $100 million from SoftBank in October, while the delivery service, Rappi, raked in $200 million in August, in a round led by Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital.

In a market so frothy, it’s no wonder that investment firms are bulking up and raising increasingly large funds. The risk is that the market could overheat and that, with a lot of capital going to a few marquee names, should those companies fail to deliver, the rising tide of capital that’s come in to the region could just as easily come back out.

 

20 startups take center stage at Berkeley SkyDeck’s demo day

The largest-ever Berkeley SkyDeck demo day kicked off with a high-energy performance from the Cal marching band, setting the tone for an afternoon of presentations from none other than Berkeley faculty and students-turned-entrepreneurs.

Launched in 2012 as a modest accelerator for student-run businesses, SkyDeck has flourished since its inception. To date, the program has mentored 300 startups, which have gone on to raise $800 million via 27 funding rounds and 10 acquisition deals. Earlier this year, it raised a $24 million venture fund so it could finally seed participating startups with $100,000 in exchange for 5 percent equity. Today’s cohort is only the second to receive an investment from SkyDeck as part of the accelerator.

To participate in SkyDeck’s accelerator program, startups must have at least one founding member attending any of the University of California campuses as an undergraduate or graduate student. Faculty members are also able to apply. Executive director Caroline Winnet said they plan to invest half that fund’s profits back into the university.

Lime, the bike- and scooter-sharing startup, is the biggest success story to emerge from SkyDeck. The company was created by Cal grads Toby Sun and Brad Bao, who were part of a 2017 SkyDeck cohort. Kiwi Campus, a robotics startup focused on last-mile delivery, and TDK-acquired Chirp Microsystems, are also SkyDeck graduates, as is the mental health startup Aura, which announced a $2.5 million financing just last week.

SkyDeck works with two cohorts of companies per year for six months each.

Here’s a look at the 20 startups that demoed for investors on Berkeley’s campus today:

PredictEV: Focused on the sports and esports market, PredictEV is a blockchain-powered social network for fans to bet on sports with cryptocurrency.

Researchably: Targeting medical research, pharma sales and outreach teams, the startup provides a research-based medical advice system.

Triton: A software platform that helps media companies tailor content to each individual reader or viewer. Triton is currently running pilots with Vanity Fair and The CW.

Predictim: An AI-powered platform that accesses a person’s trust and reliability. The purpose is to eliminate risk for members of the sharing economy. Basically, it will help you figure out if your dog-walker is a murderer.

Seamless Microsystems: Designs and manufactures semiconductor chips for consumer medical imaging, 5G networking LIDAR in autonomous driving and more.

SoftRides: Using AI and a smartphone’s image sensor to detect distracted driving behavior and alert you in real time.

Eye Level.AI: Founded by a group of former IBM Watson employees, Eye Level.AI provides an analytics-driven platform to assist chatbot owners to monetize current users and attract new ones.

Eye Level.AI

Perfect Dashboard: An AI-powered online marketplace for connecting SaaS products to small businesses.

The SMBX: A provider of a mobile marketplace that connects small businesses with people interested in investing in them.

Chameleon Biosciences: A startup focused on revolutionizing gene therapy to treat rare diseases.

ThinkCyte: The company has invented new imaging technology combined with machine learning, called Ghost Cytometry, to analyze and isolate cells for drug discovery, cell therapy and clinical diagnostics.

Snipfeed: With 44,000 weekly active users, Snipfeed helps Generation Z mobile users avoid misinformation online with its AI-powered news and information recommendation engine.

DropEx: A business networking app and relationship management system.

Peanut Robotics: The startup’s consumer-facing robot can grip household items to assist with cleaning at hotels, offices and airports.

Empire Biotechnologies: The company is developing therapies for gastrointestinal issues, specifically short bowel syndrome. Empire’s drug is used to control the absorption of nutrients through the digestive system.

Humm: A developer of wearable cognitive performance enhancement hardware created by a group of researchers at the University of Western Australia.

CoolJamm: An automated music producer and recommendation engine that uploads directly to YouTube.

Bungee: Led by three former Amazon employees, Bungee helps e-commerce businesses mine geo-specific data to create a recommendation engine for price, promotions and inventory.

SimpleDataLabs: The creator of Prophecy, a predictive analytics platform focused on business analysts and executives.

Skyloom: The company wants to improve space-to-Earth communications and unlock “the true economic potential of low Earth orbit” with its spaceborne infrastructure.

 

Monashees raises $150 million for its eighth Brazilian fund

As technology investment and exits continue to rise across Brazil, early stage venture capital firm monashees today announced that it has closed on $150 million for its eighth investment fund.

Commitments came from Temasek, the sovereign wealth fund affiliated with the Singaporean government, China’s financial technology company, CreditEase; Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger, the University of Minnesota endowment; and fund-of-funds investor Horsley Bridge Partners.

S-Cubed Capital, the family office of former Sequoia Capital partner, Mark Stevens, and fifteen high net worth Brazilian families and investment groups also invested in the firm’s latest fund.

As one of the largest venture capital firms in Latin America with over $430 million in capital under management, monashees has been involved in some of the most successful investments to come from the region. Altogether, monashees portfolio companies have gone on to raise roughly $2 billion from global investors after raising money from the Sao Paulo-based venture capital firm.

“We are excited to further advance our partnership with the monashees team,” said Du Chai, Managing Director at Horsley Bridge Partners . “Over the course of our partnership, we have continued to be impressed by monashees’ strong team, platform and their ability to attract the region’s leading entrepreneurs.”

In the past year, investment in Latin American startup companies has exploded.  The ride-hailing service 99 was acquired for $1 billion and Rappi, a delivery service, managed to raise $200 million at a $1 billion valuation. Another delivery service, Loggi, caught the attention of SoftBank, which invested $100 million into the Brazilian company.

Public markets are also rewarding Latin American startups with continued investment and high valuations. Stone Pagamentos, a provider of payment hardware technology, raised $1.1 billion in its public offering on the Nasdaq with an initial market capitalization of $6.6 billion.

“monashees brings a truly unique set of skills to the table, with a disciplined investment strategy, as well as the unmatched local expertise and knowledge that leads the team to identify and invest in the region’s best founders,” said Stuart Mason, Chief Investment Officer at the University of Minnesota . “The recent billion-dollar acquisition of 99 by DiDi is not only a milestone for the local ecosystem, but validation of this sentiment and suggests that there’s no liquidity hurdle for great companies in Latin America. We are excited to partner with monashees as it continues to find and nurture the best opportunities going forward.”