Google is closing its Schaft robotics unit after failing to find a buyer

Sad news for anyone into giant robots: Google is closing down Schaft, its secretive unit that develops bipedal robots aimed at helping out in disaster efforts and generally looking badass.

The news was first reported by Nikkei, but Google confirmed to TechCrunch that the business will be shuttered. It said it is helping staff find new roles, most of which will likely be outside of Google and its Alphabet parent.

Firstly up, many people — myself included — might have forgotten that Google owns Schaft .

The company was scheduled to be sold to SoftBank alongside Boston Dynamics — another of Google’s robotics ventures — through a deal that was announced last year. Boston Dynamics made the transition but Schaft didn’t. Softbank never shouted that omission from the rooftops, but a source with knowledge of the deal told us that certain conditions agreed for the deal were not fulfilled, hence Schaft remained with Google.

Our source explained that Google’s robotics focused shifted away from Schaft and instead to non-humanoid robots and industry-led solutions such as robotic arms. The departure of Andy Rubin, the controversial robotics evangelist who reportedly got a $90 million payout to leave amid sexual misconduct allegations, seemed to speed up its demise inside the organization.

Google shopped the Schaft business fairly widely — since 2016 and after the SoftBank deal collapsed — but to no avail, we understand. That left closing it down as the last remaining option.

Schaft was founded in 2012 by a group led by University of Tokyo professor Yuto Nakanishi.

Alphabet acquired Shaft and Boston Dynamics in 2013, the former was part of a group of seven acquisitions, in undisclosed deals.

There’s been plenty of attention on Boston Dynamics and its crazy, even scary, robots which can trek across all terrains and get up instantly when knocked over, but Schaft maintained a fairly quiet presence. Indeed, its first major prototypes weren’t revealed until some two years after its acquisition.

Okay, one final Form D note

Some more comments from readers on the changing culture around startups filing their Form Ds with the SEC, and then a short update on SoftBank and a bunch more article reviews.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new – provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at [email protected] or Arman at [email protected] if you like or hate something here.

Lawyers are pretty uniform that disclosure is no longer ideal

If you haven’t been following our obsession with Form Ds, be sure to read up on our original piece and follow up. The gist is that startups are increasingly foregoing filing a Form D with the SEC that provides details of their venture rounds like investment size and main investors in order to stay stealth longer. That has implications for journalists and the public, since we rely on these filings in many cases to know who is funding what in the Valley.

Morrison Foerster put together a good presentation two years ago that provides an overview of the different routes that startups can take in disclosing their rounds properly.

Traditionally, the vast majority of startups used Rule 506 for their securities, which mandates that a Form D be filed within 15 days of the first money of the round closing. These days though, more and more startups are opting to use Section 4(a)(2), which doesn’t require a Form D, but also doesn’t provide a “blue sky” exception to start securities laws, which means that startups have to file in relevant state jurisdictions and no longer have preemption from the SEC.

David Willbrand, who chairs the Early Stage & Emerging Company Practice at Thompson Hine LLP, read our original articles on Form Ds and explained by email that the practices around securities disclosures have indeed been changing at his firm and others:

We started pushing 4(a)(2) very hard when our clients kept getting “outed” thru the Form D and upset about it. In my experience, for 99% is the desire to remain in stealth mode, period.

[…]

When I started in 1996, Form Ds were paper, there was no internet, and no one looked. Now they are electronic and the media and blogs scrape daily and publish the information. It actually really is true disclosure! And it’s kind of ironic, right, which goes to your point – now that it’s working, these issuers don’t want it.

[…]

What I find is that the proverbial Series A is the brass ring, and issuers wants to call everything seed rounds (saving the title) until something chunky shows up, and stay below the radar too. So they pop out of the cake publicly for the first time with a big “Series A” that they build press around – and their first Form D.

Another piece of feedback we received was from Augie Rakow, the co-founder and managing partner of Atrium, which bills itself as a “better law firm for startups” that TechCrunch has covered a few times before. He wrote to us that in addition to the media concerns, startups also have to be aware of the broad cross-section of interested parties to Form Ds that hasn’t existed in the past:

Today, there is a bigger audience in terms of who cares about venture backed companies. Whether this spun off from the launch of the Facebook movie or the fact that over two billion people across the global have the internet at their fingertips via smartphones, people are connected and curious. The audience is not only larger but also encompasses more national and international interests. This means there are simply more eyes on trends, announcements, and intel on privately held companies whether they are media, investors, or your competitors. Companies that have a good reason to stay stealth may want to avoid attracting this attention by not making a public Form D filing.

For startups, the obvious advice is to just consult your attorney and consider the tradeoffs of having a very clean safe harbor versus more work around regulatory filings to stay stealthy.

But the real message here is for journalists. Form Ds are no longer common among seed-stage startups, and indeed, startup founders and venture investors have a lot of latitude in choosing how and when they file. You can no longer just watch the SEC’s EDGAR search platform and break stories anymore. Building up a human sourcing capability is the only way to get into those early investment rounds today.

Finally — and this is something that is hard to prove one way or the other — the lack of disclosure may also mean that the fears around seed financing dropping off a cliff may be at least a little bit unfounded. Eliot Brown at the Wall Street Journal reported just yesterday that the number of seed financings is down 40% according to PitchBook data. How much of that drop is because of changing macroeconomic conditions, versus changes in filing disclosures?

Quick follow up on SoftBank

Tokyo Stock Exchange. Photo by electravk via Getty Images

Last week, I also got obsessed with SoftBank. The company confirmed today that it intends to move forward with the IPO of its Japanese mobile telecom unit, according to WSJ and many other sources. The company is targeting more than $20 billion in proceeds, and its overallotment could drive that above $25 billion, or roughly the level of Alibaba’s record IPO haul.

One interesting note from Taiga Uranaka at Reuters on the public issue is that everyday investors will likely play an outsized role in the IPO process:

Yet SoftBank’s brand name is still likely to draw retail investors long accustomed to using SoftBank’s phone and internet services. Many still see CEO Son as a tech visionary who challenged entrenched rivals NTT DoCoMo Inc ( 9437.T ) and KDDI, and brought Apple Inc’s ( AAPL.O ) iPhone to Japan.

Japanese households are commonly seen as an attractive target in IPOs with their 1,829 trillion yen in financial assets, even if they are traditionally risk-averse with over 50 percent of assets in cash and deposits.

More than 80 percent of the shares will be offered to domestic retail investors, a person with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Pavel Alpeyev at Bloomberg noted that “SoftBank is looking to tempt investors with a dividend payout ratio of about 85 percent of net income, according to the filing. Based on net income in the last fiscal year, that would work out to an almost 5 percent yield at the indicated IPO price.” A higher dividend ratio is particularly attractive to retired individual investors.

Despite SoftBank’s horrifying levels of debt, Japanese consumers may well save the company from itself and allow it to effectively jump start its balance sheet yet again. Complemented with a potential Vision Fund II, Masayoshi Son’s vision for a completely transformed SoftBank seems waiting for him in the cards.

Notes on Articles

Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer – Nellie Bowles writes a feature on Yuval Noah Harari, the noted philosopher and popular author of Sapiens. Bowles investigates the paradoxical popularity of Harari, who sees technology as creating a permanent “useless class” and criticizes Silicon Valley with his now enduring popularity in the region. Interesting personal details on the somewhat reclusive Israeli, but ultimately the question of the paradox remains sadly mostly unanswered. (2,800 words)

Why Doctors Hate Their Computers – Atul Gawande discusses learning and using Epic, the dominant electronic medical records software platform, and discovers the challenges of building static software for the complex adaptive system that is health care. His observations of the challenges of software engineering will be well-known to anyone who has read Fred Brooks, but the piece does an excellent job of exploring the balancing act between the needs of technocratic systems and the human design needed to make messy and complicated professions work. Worth a read. (8,900 words)

Picking flowers, making honey: The Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities – An excellent study by Alex Joske at the Australia Strategic Policy Institute on the hundreds of military scientists from China who use foreign academic exchanges as a means of information acquisition for critical scientific and engineering knowledge, including in the United States. China’s government under Xi Jinping has made indigenous technology development a chief domestic priority, and the U.S. innovation economy is encouraged to increasingly guard its intellectual property. (6,500 words)

The Digital Deciders – New America report by Robert Morgus who investigates the fracturing of the internet, which I have written about at some length. Morgus finds that a small group of countries (the “digital deciders”) will determine whether the internet continues to be open or whether nationalist interests will close it off. Let’s all hope that Iraq believes in freedom of expression and not Chinese-style surveillance. Worth a skim. (45 page report, but with prodigious tables)

Reading Docket

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.

Rakuten has SoftBank in its sights

This week, I’ve tried to do something new at TechCrunch with this experimental column — getting obsessed about a topic broadly in tech and writing a continuous stream of thoughts and analysis about it.

With my research consultant and contributor Arman Tabatabai, we’ve covered two topics: Form Ds, the filing that startups usually submit to the SEC after a venture round closes (although increasingly do not), and SoftBank, which faces all kinds of strategic pressure due to its debt binging. If you missed the other episodes, here are links to the editions from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

We are experimenting with new content forms at TechCrunch. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the authors: Danny at [email protected] or Arman at [email protected] if you like or hate something here.

Today, one final round of thoughts on SoftBank and Rakuten (heavily written by Arman) and a lengthy list of articles for your weekend reading.

The Rakuten factor complicates SoftBank’s strategy

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Understanding SoftBank’s competitive strategy requires a bit of a deep dive into Japanese e-commence giant Rakuten.

Rakuten has been struggling to compete with Amazon and others like SoftBank’s Yahoo! Japan. So at the end of 2017, Rakuten announced it would be entering the telco space, hoping that operating its own network could generate user growth through better incentives around mobile shopping, streaming and payments.

Today, Japan’s telco space is a relatively cozy oligopoly dominated by NTT DoCoMo, au-KDDI and SoftBank. A major reason why Rakuten feels it can succeed where others have failed to break in is because it has the government on its side.

Rakuten’s plan to offer prices at least 30 percent lower than incumbent rates has led to favorable treatment from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government, which has been looking for ways to stimulate market competition to force lower the country’s high phone prices.

Though a new entrant hasn’t been approved to enter the telco market since eAccess in 2007, Rakuten has already gotten the thumbs-up to start operations in 2019. The government also instituted regulations that would make the new kid in town more competitive, such as banning telcos from limiting device portability.

Rakuten’s partnerships with key utilities and infrastructure players will also allow it to build out its network quickly, including one with Japan’s second largest mobile service provider, KDDI.

Just last week, Rakuten and KDDI announced an agreement where Rakuten will help KDDI utilize its payment and logistics infrastructure as KDDI turns its head toward e-commerce and payments, while KDDI will give Rakuten access to its network and nationwide roaming services, allowing Rakuten to provide nationwide service as its builds out its own infrastructure.

The agreement with KDDI is especially scary for SoftBank, the country’s third biggest telco and one of Rakuten’s e-commerce competitors, and whose customers seem most vulnerable to churn. The partnership also makes it seem even more likely that SoftBank’s competitors are looking to push it out of the market or turn into a dud its upcoming mobile segments IPO.

While Rakuten’s head-first dive into the market won’t ease investors into an IPO, it’s important we note that Rakuten is targeting a much smaller market share than the incumbents, targeting 10 million subscribers by 2028, a number lower than the company’s original 15 million subs goal and significantly lower than the 76 million, 52 million and 40 million subscribers NTT, KDDI and SoftBank (respectively) hold currently. And even with its agreements, Rakuten faces a serious and expensive uphill battle in building out its network infrastructure quickly enough to compete.

Ultimately, Rakuten’s telco initiative is a splash, but one that seems like it will merely make its competitors wet and not drown them. For SoftBank, it is an annoying distraction on its telco IPO roadshow, but a distraction that is easily explained to potential investors.

SoftBank growth over the past two decades

Rajeev Misra. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Changing gears from Rakuten, emails from readers this week asked us to look deeper into SoftBank’s performance over the last two decades. As we did so, it became clear that SoftBank has had a long history of price competitions and new entrants across its businesses, and it has proven its ability to operate and consistently grow earnings.

Since 2000, SoftBank has grown earnings at a ~30 percent CAGR and experienced revenue growth in all but one year. When eAccess did enter the telco market and picked up four million subscribers, SoftBank bought it and integrated it into its own system.

As we discussed earlier this week, despite having always held on to a clunky amount of debt, SoftBank has managed to deliver consistent growth by making sure its revenue and operating growth outpaced the upticks in its debt and interest expense.

A great example of this came after SoftBank’s acquisition of Vodafone in 2006, when it saw a huge spike in its interest expense, but also in its operating income.

Over the following five years, SoftBank managed to reduce its interest expense at an annual rate of 12 percent while growing its operating income at 16 percent. And regardless of its debt balances, SoftBank has always seemingly been able to secure funding one way or another, as shown by its ability to raise $90+ billion for the Vision Fund in less than a year from when plans for the fund were first reported.

The Vision Fund itself started as a way for SoftBank to continue to invest while its balance sheet was tight due to nearly back-to-back massive acquisitions of Sprint and Arm. Just look at how Rajeev Misra, who oversees the Vision Fund, discussed its creation in an interview with The Economic Times:

We had just bought ARM in June for $32 billion and Masa felt we are on the cusp of a technology revolution over the next 5-10 years with machine learning, AI, robotics and the impact of that in disrupting every industry – from healthcare to financial services to manufacturing.

We felt the world was going through a new industrial revolution. We were constrained financially given that we just did a $32-billion acquisition.

SoftBank, historically over the last 20 years, has invested from its own balance sheet. So, we had two options.

Either monetise some of the gains we made in Alibaba which we decided has a lot more upside… Alibaba has more than doubled in the last 12 months. So we decided to keep it which turned out to be good decision. The second option was to go out and raise money and co-invest with others. We prepared a presentation, went out, and by god’s grace we raised the fund.

Even before the Vision Fund, SoftBank has always had a strategy to make big bets in industries of the future. And while many have failed, the several that have paid off, like its $20 million investment in Alibaba, had massive cash outs that have driven consistent earnings growth for decades. SoftBank seems to be banking its future on the same strategy and, frankly, it’s unclear how much they even care about how competitive their telco is, as shown by this exchange in the same interview with Misra:

Question: What about sectors like telecom?

Misra: Let the dust settle.

What’s next

Our obsession with SoftBank this week is probably going to subside, and we are in the market for our next deep dive topic in tech and finance. Have ideas? Drop us a line at [email protected] and [email protected]

Thoughts on articles (i.e. weekend reading)

Photo by Darren Johnson / EyeEm via Getty Images

The CIA’s communications suffered a catastrophic compromise. It started in Iran. This is a great follow-up from Yahoo News’ Zach Dorfman and Jenna McLaughlin on one of the most important espionage stories this past decade. The CIA, using an internet-based communications system to connect with spies and sources in the field, failed to keep the security of the system intact, leading to the dismantling of its Iranian, Chinese and potentially other espionage rings. This article advances the story as we know it from the New York Times’ original piece, and Foreign Policy’s excellent follow up also written by Zach Dorfman. Definitely worth a read from a security/technical audience. (3,200 words)

The $6 Trillion Barrier Holding Electric Cars Back. Don’t read — the answer is infrastructure. (1,000 words, but should be one)

The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success. A a good reminder that some technologies are much closer to reality than others, and that the key difference between them is our collective experience handling the technology. Rodney Brooks is the right person to cover this subject, although one can’t help but feel that every example is Musk-inspired. (2,800 words)

Uber’s economics team is its secret weapon by Alison Griswold & Soon there may be more economists at tech companies than in policy schools by Roberta Holland, both in Quartz . Griswold does a great job giving an overview of how Uber is using economists not just to improve its product for end users, but also to shape the discussion of public policy around the company. Clearly, Uber is not alone; as Holland notes in her piece, academic economists are very popular in Silicon Valley right now, with salaries that can match the top machine learning experts. (2,750 words and 1,200 words, respectively)

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear blinders. A short piece by Nicholas Carr fighting back against the notion that computing is still “at the beginning.” Many of our devices and pieces of software are already decades old — if they haven’t had an effect on human behavior or productivity, when are they going to? A useful antidote to some ideas we hear from the Valley every single day. (900 words)

The future of photography is code. Yes, yes, I am very late to this — blame Pocket disease. TechCrunch’s own Devin Coldewey writes a candid essay on the transition from improving photography through hardware like lenses to improving photos through computation. The future is looking very bright for beautiful photos, indeed. (2,400 words)

Freedom on the Net 2018 | Freedom House. And if you are looking for some depressing news, Freedom House’s report (which I am also a bit late to) is dreary. China is now increasingly the source of authoritarian internet control technology, and countries across the world are backtracking on internet freedom (including the U.S.). Sobering, but with so much riding on the openness of the internet, we all need to pay attention and build the kind of future for this technology that we want. (32 page PDF with exec summary)

Reading docket

What we are reading (or at least, trying to read)

Articles

Books

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.

 

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.”

 

Tink Labs, which gives free-to-use smartphones to hotel guests, is raising $300M

Tink Labs, a Hong Kong startup that develops smartphones that hotels provide to their guests for free, is raising a new round of up to $300 million to further its international footprint, TechCrunch has come to understand.

The startup is in the final stages of completing the deal that could give its six-year-old business a post-money valuation of at least $1.5 billion, two sources with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch .

It isn’t clear at this point which investors are part of the round, but once source said Tink Labs has made an effort to court hotels and travel firms as investors since it believes they could provide strategic value beyond simply capital. But any hoteliers would likely provide smaller checks, with more established investors picking up the bulk of the round.

Tink Labs declined to respond when contacted for comment by TechCrunch.

The company’s existing investors include manufacturing giant Foxconn (via its FIH Mobile unit), Sinovation Ventures — the investment firm from ex-Google China head Kaifu Lee — and Cai Wensheng, an angel investor who is the founder and chairman of Hong Kong-listed photo app firm Meitu. It also snagged money from SoftBank this summer after the Japanese firm invested in a joint-venture for the Japanese market. That deal appears to have been hugely successful since Japan is Tink Labs’ largest market with over 810 hotel deployments.

To date, the firm has announced over $170 million in funding. Its most recent deal was a $125 million investment in 2016, but a source close to the company said it landed an undisclosed deal in the past year that took its valuation over the $1 billion mark and made it one of Hong Kong’s first unicorns. Bloomberg reported last year that it had closed $40 million, but that was never confirmed nor announced by Tink Labs, so this round could mark its official coming out as a billion-dollar business.

The company has 17 offices worldwide while its website claims it has deployed phones in over 1,700 hotel locations worldwide, predominantly in APAC and Europe, with over 12 million customers using them. It said in March that it plans to reach one million hotel rooms by the end of this year — half of which will be in Europe — and this new money is likely earmarked for further global growth. To give an indication, there are currently over 90 open positions listed on Tink Labs’ careers page.

The company was founded by CEO Terrence Kwok, now 26, and it moved into the hotel concierge phone space after first developing a device rental service that targeted travelers at airports.

Tink Labs remained focused on offering connectivity to travelers, but it shifted the focus to hotels because it believes it can help foster a closer relationship between hotel brands and their guests. Tink Labs says that active users typically engage with the device for just over one hour per day, while it claims to have lifted hotel revenue by four percent when adopted.

Tink Labs’ Handy phone can also be programmed to work with key-less doors and to activate air conditioning and other gadgets in guest rooms.

Its Handy product is a smartphone for hotel guests that takes the pain out of mobile roaming. You can make calls and send messages like a normal phone, but it also includes details of services available at your hotel and nearby activities. It even hooks into the hotel’s telephone system so you can order room service before you get back to your room, call a colleague via their room number, or phone the helpdesk if you’re out and about but need help talking to a taxi driver in the local language.

The concept has proven popular with hotels — global brands using Handy include the likes of IHG, Sheraton, Novotel, Mercure and Holiday Inn — and, in perhaps the ultimate validation, a series of knock-offs have surfaced with their own Handy clones.

Tink Labs has pushed itself (and Handy) as a platform for enabling sales, both for hotels and ‘preferred’ venues in cities, with pricing starting at $1 for each device in a room per day.

While this new funding round is in its final stages before being closed, there is one intriguing wrinkle. Tink Labs seems to have flirted with the idea of an ICO, even though most token sales have shifted to essential private, rather than public, sales.

The company is seeking to hire a “strategy associate (with ICO experience)”, according to a listing on its jobs site that has been online for most of this year. Despite multiple requests for information from TechCrunch, Tink Labs has not provided further details on its plan for crypto. However, with this new round soon to be in the bank and the general crypto market declining significantly this year, an ICO would seem unlikely.

Social Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya says ‘we need to return to the roots of venture investing’

In the first of many annual letters Chamath Palihapitiya will be penning as part of his firm’s new era as a technology holding company, the founder of Social Capital criticized the venture capital industry.

After highlighting the latest trends within VC — i.e. SoftBank’s Vision Fund, private equity activity in VC deals and inflated valuations — Palihapitiya divulged the asset class’s biggest problems. A copious amount of capital is flowing through the industry and VCs have an insatiable appetite for “unicorn status.” As a result, investors are paying more and more for equity in startups at all stages, hurting both startup employees and limited partners, who ultimately have to foot the bill.

“The dynamics we’ve entered is, in many ways, creating a dangerous, high stakes Ponzi scheme,” Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, wrote. “Highly marked up valuations, which should be a cost for VCs, have in fact become their key revenue driver. It lets them raise new funds and keep drawing fees.”

LPs and startup employees are suffering as a result of VC greed. Why? According to Palihapitiya, LPs are seeing delayed returns and startup employees are being offered stock options at inflated prices to match a company’s sky-high valuation.

“VCs bid up and mark up each other’s portfolio company valuations today, justifying high prices by pointing to today’s user growth and tomorrow’s network effects. Those companies then go spend that money on even more user growth, often in zero-sum competition with one another. Today’s limited partners are fine with the exercise in the short run, as it gives them the markups and projected returns that they need to keep their own bosses happy.”

“Ultimately, the bill gets handed to current and future LPs (many years down the road), and startup employees (who lack the means to do anything about the problem other than leave for a new company, and acquire a ‘portfolio’ of options.)”

Social Capital has had a rough go of it lately. The firm made the call to stop accepting outside capital about a month ago, with plans to invest off a “multi-billion dollar balance sheet of internal capital only.” That decision followed a string of high-profile exits that cemented the supposition that Social Capital, as we’ve known it, was over.

In his new role as a leader of a tech holding company, not a VC firm, Palihapitiya claims to have the solution to the aforementioned problem plaguing the venture and startup industry: “Return to the roots of venture investing.”

“The real expense in a startup shouldn’t be their bill from Big Tech but, rather, the cost of real innovation and R&D,” he said. “The second is to break away from the multilevel marketing scheme that the VC-LP-user growth game has become. At Social Capital, we did this by actively shifting away from funds and LPs to rely only on our own permanent capital moving forward.”

“Are we crazy to reject tens of millions of dollars a year in fees? We think not, and we believe it’s time to wait patiently as the air is slowly let out of this bizarre Ponzi balloon created by the venture capital industry.”

You can read the full letter here.

GM looks to cut costs by offering buyouts to 18,000 employees

General Motors has offered voluntary buyouts to 18,000 salaried employees in North America who have at least 12 years of experience, as the automaker looks to cut costs all while investing in its electric and autonomous future.

The company has described this as a proactive measure aimed at preparing for coming headwinds such as  slow sales in North America and China, commodity prices and tariffs.

But it’s just as much about preparing for the future. The company has been undergoing a transformation over the past four to five years, ditching expensive, money-losing programs like the Opel brand in Europe, and investing more into electrification and autonomous vehicle technology.

And it’s not wasting any time.

GM is giving these employees until November 19 to decide whether they’ll take the buyout offer. Those who accept will receive severance beginning February 1, 2019.

About 36 percent of the company’s 50,000 employees in North America are eligible for the buyout. A GM spokesman declined to say how many employees it expected to take the buyout, except to predict that it was unlikely the number would be anywhere close to 18,000.

GM has been on a three-year $6.5 billion cost-cutting mission that it expects to hit by the end of the year. GM CFO Dhivya Suryadevara said in the company’s earnings call Wednesday that GM had made $6.3 billion in cost-saving measures as of the end of the third quarter.

GM’s cost-cutting measures have happened in parallel with its investments and commitments to electrification and autonomous technology. GM acquired Cruise Automation for $1 billion in 2016. Earlier this year, the automaker said it would invest another $1.1 billion into its self-driving unit as part of a bigger deal with SoftBank. Cruise Holdings has said it will launch a commercial autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service in 2019.

It has also focused on hiring more software engineers, and will continue to add those kinds of jobs even as the buyouts begin, according to GM.

GM’s plan is to launch 20 new all-electric vehicles globally by 2023 and increase production of the Chevy Bolt. At an event in September, GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra said the company is poised to build more all-electric vehicles as improvements continue at its recently expanded battery lab and a new LG Electronics plant in Michigan comes online.

The LG Electronics facility in Hazel Park will start making battery packs this fall to supply GM’s Orion Assembly Plant, where the automaker builds the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt.

Silicon Valley’s sovereign wealth problem

It’s time to bring the conversation about where Silicon Valley gets its money from out into the open. Following recent revelations into Saudi Arabia’s extensive reach and influence in the US technology sector, the willful ignorance that has defined the relationship between venture capital firms and the limited partnerships (LPs) that fund them for years now isn’t going to cut it anymore.

According to the latest reports from the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia is now the single-largest source of funding for US-based tech companies. Since 2016, the Saudi royal family has invested at least $11 billion into US startups directly, and in August, the Saudi Arabian government committed $45 billion to Softbank’s $92 billion Vision Fund. To put that into context, the total amount of funding deployed across all VC deals so far in 2018 is $84.3 billion — a record for the industry, but a paltry sum relative to the wealth of the Saudi Kingdom.

Backlash is rising — and that’s a good thing. With tech companies now capturing the lion’s share of global wealth creation, we should absolutely want to know where that money is going. For one, it’s a matter of ethics. The US tech industry generates billions of dollars in returns annually for investors. When that money is being funneled into the coffers of a country with a total lack of respect for basic human rights, that’s a problem. It’s not good for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and it’s not good for the country as a whole.

That’s not to say all sovereign wealth is at issue. Not in the least bit. But when it comes to funds that support nation states with questionable track records on human rights, there’s no debate.

This is a critical moment for Silicon Valley. It’s a wake up call to venture capitalists and entrepreneurs alike to start being more mindful about their sources of funding. There are plenty of better institutions and more impactful causes you can be helping to enrich – research initiatives at top public children’s hospitals, financial aid programs at historically black colleges and universities, public pension funds, and the list goes on – you just have to make the effort and be intentional about it. As an industry, we can and should be doing more to support these groups. If fact, it’s one of the very reasons why Jyoti Bansal and I founded Unusual Ventures and raised our entire fund from a diverse set of LPs.

If history is any guide, however, it will take more than the better nature of entrepreneurs and their investors to make a real impact.

Gender parity in the tech industry is a fitting example: While advocates have been calling for greater gender diversity in senior leadership positions at tech companies for decades, gender inequality continues to pervade the entire sector. In September, California took steps to remedy the issue by passing a law requiring public companies to have at least two female directors on the executive board. Since then, we’ve seen some improvements – although there is still far, far more that needs to happen.

Similarly, what’s likely needed to move the needle on transparency in venture funding is common sense regulation. For instance, we should consider a law that requires – at a minimum – transparency around how much funding VC firms raise from foreign sources.

This already exists for VC funding raised from public US institutions. When VCs raise capital from public universities, endowments, pension funds and others, they are required to report it under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ironically, this mandate has contributed to the rise of sovereign wealth funds in the tech sector. That is, the additional reporting requirements that come along with raising money from public institutions drives VCs to “easier” sources of funding, such as sovereign wealth and billionaire family offices. Translation: transparency isn’t just common sense – it’s effective too – so let’s level the playing field.

Just like with any society-level issue though, fixing Silicon Valley’s sovereign wealth problem won’t happen overnight. For one, drafting legislation and enacting it into law takes time. It’s also extremely difficult for VCs to make changes around their investment base in the short term. If change is going to take root, the big moments to watch will be the start of the next funding cycle (ie. when VCs are out raising their next fund) and future legislative sessions, especially in the California state legislature.

In the meantime, entrepreneurs need to start asking VCs about where their money comes from. Nothing is going to happen without the industry’s best entrepreneurs stepping up and putting the pressure on VCs. So long as they are willing to accept funding without asking where it comes from, there is little incentive for the VC industry to change.

But if the entrepreneur community in Silicon Valley takes a stand on transparency in VC and starts asking the right questions, there is nothing stopping this moment from becoming more than just another news cycle. It will become a movement the VC industry cannot ignore.