Flying taxi startup Blade is helping Silicon Valley CEOs bypass traffic

One year after a $38 million Series B valued on-demand aviation startup Blade at $140 million, the company has begun taxiing the Bay Area’s elite.

As part of a new pilot program, Blade has given 200 people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley exclusive access to its mobile app, allowing them to book helicopters, private jets and even seaplanes at a moments notice for $200 per seat, at least.

Blade, backed by Lerer Hippeau, Airbus, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and others, currently flies passengers around the New York City area, where it’s headquartered, offering the region’s wealthy $800 flights to the Hamptons, among other flights at various price points. According to Business Insider, it has worked with Uber in the past to help deep-pocketed Coachella attendees fly to and from the Van Nuys Airport to Palm Springs, renting out six-seat helicopters for more than $4,000 a pop.

Its latest pilot seems to target business travelers, connecting riders to the San Francisco International Airport and Oakland International Airport to Palo Alto, San Jose, Monterey and Napa Valley. The goal is to shorten trips made excruciatingly long due to bad traffic in major cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Recently, the startup partnered with American Airlines to better establish its network of helicopters, a big step for the company as it works to integrate with existing transportation infrastructure.

Blade, led by founder and chief executive officer Rob Wiesenthal, a former Warner Music Group executive, has raised about $50 million in venture capital funding to date. To launch at scale and, ultimately, to compete with the likes of soon-to-be-public transportation behemoth Uber, it will have to land a lot more investment support.

Uber too has lofty plans to develop a consumer aerial ridesharing business, as do several other privately-funded startups. Called UberAIR, Uber will offer short-term shareable flights to commuters as soon as 2023. The company has raised billions of dollars to turn this sci-fi concept into reality.

Then there’s Kitty Hawk, a company launched by former Google vice president and Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, which is developing an aircraft that can take off like a helicopter but fly like a plane for short-term urban transportation purposes. Others in the air taxi or vertical take-off and landing aircraft space, including Volocopter, Lilium and Joby Aviation, have raised tens of millions to eliminate traffic congestion or, rather, to chauffer the rich.

Blade’s next stop is India, the Financial Times reports, where it will conduct a pilot connecting travelers in downtown Mumbai and Pune. The company tells TechCrunch they are currently exploring one additional domestic pilot and one additional international pilot.

Startups Weekly: A much-needed unicorn IPO update

As I’m sure everyone reading this knows, female-founded businesses receive just over 2 percent of venture capital on an annual basis. Most of those checks are written to early-stage startups. It’s extremely difficult for female founders to garner late-stage support, let alone cash $100 million checks.

Maybe that’s finally changing. This week, not one but two female-founded and led companies, Glossier and Rent The Runway, raised nine-figure rounds and cemented their status as unicorn companies. According to PitchBook data from 2018, there are only about 15 unicorn startups with female founders. Though I’m sure that number has increased in the last year, you get the point: There are hundreds of privately held billion-dollar companies and shockingly few of those have women founders (even fewer have female CEOs)…

Moving on…

YC Demo Days

I spent a good part of the week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 in a room full of vest-wearing investors. We listened to some 200 YC companies make their 120-second pitch and though it was a bit of a whirlwind, there were definitely some standouts. ICYMI: We wrote about each and every company that pitched on day 1 and day 2. If you’re looking for the inside scoop on the companies that forwent demo day and raised rounds, or were acquired, before hitting the stage, we’ve got that too.

IPO corner

Lyft: This week, Lyft set the terms for its highly-anticipated initial public offering, expected to be completed next week. The company will charge between $62 and $68 per share, raising more than $2 billion at a valuation of ~$23 billion. We previously reported its initial market cap would be around $18.5 billion, but that was before we knew that Lyft’s IPO was already oversubscribed. Here’s a little more background on the Lyft IPO for those interested.

Uber: The global ride-hailing business flew a little more under the radar this week than last week, but still managed to grab a few headlines. The company has decided to sell its stock on the New York Stock Exchange, which is the least surprising IPO development of 2019, considering its key U.S. competitor, Lyft, has been working with the Nasdaq on its IPO. Uber is expected to unveil its S-1 in April.

Ben Silbermann, co-founder and CEO of Pinterest, at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017.

Pinterest: Pinterest, the nearly decade-old visual search engine, unveiled its S-1 on Friday, one of the final steps ahead of its NYSE IPO, expected in April. The $12.3 billion company, which will trade under the ticker symbol “PINS,” posted revenue of $755.9 million in the year ending December 31, 2018, up from $472.8 million in 2017. It has roughly doubled its monthly active user count since early 2016, hitting 265 million last year. The company’s net loss, meanwhile, shrank to $62.9 million in 2018 from $130 million in 2017.

Zoom: Not necessarily the buzziest of companies, but its S-1 filing, published Friday, stands out for one important reason: Zoom is profitable! I know, what insanity! Anyway, the startup is going public on the Nasdaq as soon as next month after raising about $150 million in venture capital funding. The full deets are here.

Seed money

General Catalyst, a well-known venture capital firm, is diving more seriously into the business of funding seed-stage business. The firm, which has investments in Warby Parker, Oscar and Stripe, announced earlier this week its plan to invest at least $25 million each year in nascent teams.

Deal of the week

Earlier this week, Opendoor, the SoftBank -backed real estate startup, filed paperwork to raise even more money. According to TechCrunch’s Ingrid Lunden, the business is planning to raise up to $200 million at a valuation of roughly $3.7 billion. It’s possible this is a Series E extension; after all, the company raised its $400 million Series E only six months ago. Backers of OpenDoor include the usual suspects: Andreessen Horowitz, Coatue, General Atlantic, GV, Initialized Capital, Khosla Ventures, NEA and Norwest Venture Partners.

Startup capital

Backstage Capital founder and managing partner Arlan Hamilton, center.

Debate

Axios’ Dan Primack and Kia Kokalitcheva published a report this week revealing Backstage Capital hadn’t raised its debut fund in total. Backstage founder Arlan Hamilton was quick to point out that she had been honest about the challenges of fundraising during various speaking engagements, and even on the Gimlet “Startup” podcast, which featured her in its latest season. A Twitter debate ensued and later, Hamilton announced she was stepping down as CEO of Backstage Studio, the operations arm of the venture fund, to focus on raising capital and amplifying founders. TechCrunch’s Megan Rose Dickey has the full story.

Pro rata rights

This week, TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos revisited a long-held debate: Pro rata rights, or the right of an earlier investor in a company to maintain the percentage that he or she (or their venture firm) owns as that company matures and takes on more funding. Here’s why pro rata rights matter (at least, to VCs).

#Equitypod

If you enjoy this newsletter, be sure to check out TechCrunch’s venture-focused podcast, Equity. In this week’s episode, available here, Crunchbase News editor-in-chief Alex Wilhelm and I chat about Glossier, Rent The Runway and YC Demo Days. Then, in a special Equity Shot, we unpack the numbers behind the Pinterest and Zoom IPO filings.

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Equity Shot: Pinterest and Zoom file to go public

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

What a Friday. This afternoon (mere hours after we released our regularly scheduled episode no less!), both Pinterest and Zoom dropped their public S-1 filings. So we rolled up our proverbial sleeves and ran through the numbers. If you want to follow along, the Pinterest S-1 is here, and the Zoom document is here.

Got it? Great. Pinterest’s long-awaited IPO filing paints a picture of a company cutting its losses while expanding its revenue. That’s the correct direction for both its top and bottom lines.

As Kate points out, it’s not in the same league as Lyft when it comes to scale, but it’s still quite large.

More than big enough to go public, whether it’s big enough to meet, let alone surpass its final private valuation ($12.3 billion) isn’t clear yet. Peeking through the numbers, Pinterest has been improving margins and accelerating growth, a surprisingly winsome brace of metrics for the decacorn.

Pinterest has raised a boatload of venture capital, about $1.5 billion since it was founded in 2010. Its IPO filing lists both early and late-stage investors, like Bessemer Venture Partners, FirstMark Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Fidelity and Valiant Capital Partners as key stakeholders. Interestingly, it doesn’t state the percent ownership of each of these entities, which isn’t something we’ve ever seen before.

Next, Zoom’s S-1 filing was more dark horse entrance than Katy Perry album drop, but the firm has a history of rapid growth (over 100 percent, yearly) and more recently, profit. Yes, the enterprise-facing video conferencing unicorn actually makes money!

In 2019, the year in which the market is bated on Uber’s debut, profit almost feels out of place. We know Zoom’s CEO Eric Yuan, which helps. As Kate explains, this isn’t his first time as a founder. Nor is it his first major success. Yuan sold his last company, WebEx, for $3.2 billion to Cisco years ago then vowed never to sell Zoom (he wasn’t thrilled with how that WebEx acquisition turned out).

Should we have been that surprised to see a VC-backed tech company post a profit — no. But that tells you a little something about this bubble we live in, doesn’t it?

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Respondology helps brands and influencers hide toxic comments

“Don’t read the comments” is one of those clichés that sticks around because it’s still good advice — maybe the best advice. But the team at Respondology is trying to change that.

The company started out by helping brands find and respond to messages on social media. Senior Vice President of Sales Aaron Benor explained that in the course of that work, it also built a tool to mitigate “the vitriol, the awful toxicity of online social media.”

“We realized that the tool had a lot more legs than we thought, and we decided to pursue it full force and sunset the advertising business,” Benor said. “What really I love about this new product is that the big picture, long-term, is: We can put an end to cyberbullying.”

That’s a big goal, and to be clear, Respondology isn’t trying to reach it immediately. Instead, it’s launching a product called The Mod that allows individual brands and influencers to weed out toxic, trollish or spammy comments on Instagram and YouTube, rendering them invisible to most followers.

Benor explained that the product has two lines of defense. First, there’s automated keyword detection, where certain words will cause a comment to be flagged. The customer can decide which categories they want to filter out (“mild” or “severe” swearing, sexual references, racist remarks and so on), and they can also view and reinstate flagged comments from their Respondology dashboard.

Respondology settings

Respondology settings

Second, the company has built up a network of around 1,500 moderators who look at all the comments that aren’t flagged, and they can decide whether they’re appropriate to post. So even if a comment doesn’t use one of the red-flag keywords, a human can still catch it. (Customers that want to be extra careful can also turn on an option where multiple moderators vote on whether a comment should be hidden or posted.)

Benor demonstrated the system for me using a test Instagram account. I got to play the troll, posting several comments at his prompting. Each time, the comment was visible for just a few seconds before the Respondology system sprang into action and the comment disappeared.

When I posted profanity, it was automatically flagged and stayed hidden, while my other comments popped up in the moderation app — and if they were approved, they’d reappear on Instagram. All of this activity remained hidden from my account, where it just looked like my comments had been published normally.

Of course, the big social platforms have built their own moderation tools, but it seems clear that the problem remains unsolved. And even if platform moderation improves, Benor said, “This is an agnostic tool. [Our customers] have complete choice and control. This is not the platform saying, ‘This is what we’re going to offer you’; this is what’s going to work for you as a creator.”

We also discussed a recent story in The Verge highlighting the impact that moderating toxic content can have on people’s mental and emotional health. But Benor argued that while Facebook moderators have to spend most of their time dealing with “the worst of the worst,” Respondology’s team is mostly just approving innocuous commentary. Plus, they’re freelancers who only work when they want, and can stop at any time.

“We haven’t heard any negative feedback,” Benor added. “We all act as moderators ourselves — because what better way is there to know the product and understand it — and I’ve never been shocked by what I’ve seen.”

Respondology charges customers of The Mod based on the volume of comments. Benor said the pricing can range from “a few dollars a month to a few thousand dollars a month.”

Ultimately, he’s hoping to release a version for non-professional users too — so parents, for example, can automatically hide the worst comments from their kids’ online accounts.

Lyft’s IPO is hot, YC Demo Day, two new unicorns and what’s Boy Brow?

  • There were some edit issues in the initial publishing of this week’s Equity episode that have been corrected. The player below will play the corrected episode.

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week Kate Clark and Alex Wilhelm took us through an IPO, a big round, 943 startup pitches, two new unicorns and some scooter news. A very 2019 mix, really.

Up first we took a peek at the latest from the Lyft IPO saga. Recall that Lyft is beating Uber to the public markets, and we can report that it’s having a good time doing so. The popular ride-hailing company, second-place by market share in its domestic market, is oversubscribed at an already healthy valuation. If the company will raise its price and the number of shares that it sells isn’t yet known, but early indications hint that Lyft timed its IPO well.

Next, we took a look at the recent OpenDoor round that has been long-rumored. Tipping the scales at $300 million, and valuing the home-buying-and-selling startup at $3.8 billion, the company’s latest equity event was a bit higher than expected. There are other players in its space, and the firm isn’t yet recession-tested. All the same, a Murderers’ Row of capital lined up for the latest round.

Moving on, Kate went to Y Combinator’s Demo Day and got a closer look at the accelerator’s latest batch. There were a ton of two-minute pitches, many of which sounded the same, but chances are we’ll see a few unicorns emerge from the bunch. And, interesting tidbit, some of the companies actually forwent Demo Day and raised capital before they could hit the stage!

Later, we discuss two new unicorns. This week’s unicorns had a theme and one that was new to Equity. This time, both the billion-dollar businesses mentioned on the show were founded by women. As Kate noted, there aren’t too many of those, so to see two in the same week is great.

Glossier, founded by Emily Weiss, brought in a $100 million Series D led by Sequoia Capital . The round values the beauty business at a whopping $1.2 billion, tripling the valuation it garnered with a $52 million Series C in 2018. As for Rent The Runway, a startup founded by Jen Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, it closed a $125 million round led by Franklin Templeton Investments and Bain Capital Ventures. This round values the company at $1 billion. Hyman took to Twitter to share some inspirational words on raising capital as a woman, a pregnant woman, in heels!

And finally, we took a look at a Parisian scooter tax. Mostly because Alex wanted to talk about Paris.

And that’s Equity for the week. We’ll see you soon!

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercast, Pocket Casts, Downcast and all the casts.

Keatz, a European ‘cloud kitchen’ startup, raises further €12M

Keatz, one of a growing number of so-called “cloud kitchens” — delivery only restaurant brands running on the rails of Deliveroo and UberEats — has raised €12 million in new funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Project A Ventures, Atlantic Labs, UStart, K Fund and JME Ventures, who are joined by RTP Global. It adds to €7 million raised last May and will be used by the Berlin-based company to further expand its roll-out of cloud kitchens across Europe.

Launched in Spring 2016, Keatz now operates 10 cloud kitchens across Europe, having expanded beyond Berlin to Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and Munich. The startup’s network of satellite kitchens are designed to negate the high front-of-house costs found in conventional restaurants, while also selling takeout food that is better suited to delivery.

“We believe the last unsolved part in food delivery is the preparation of food itself,” Keatz co-founder Paul Gebhardt tells TechCrunch. “Delivery food today is often compromised and sold by companies focusing on hospitality and not delivery food. Classic brick and mortar restaurants simply have a different business model, namely hospitality, which is all about the experience and location and the food is meant to be eaten immediately. Nobody at Nandos or Byron Burger designed the food keeping in mind that the food might travel on a Deliveroo bike for another 15 miles, mostly upside down in a delivery bag”.

Similar to other cloud kitchen startups, such as France’s Taster, Gebhardt says Keatz is changing this by focusing exclusively on food “made for delivery,” including designing dishes that can withstand a minimum 15 journey. The startup has a portfolio of eight delivery-only food brands, which are all prepared in the same shared kitchens.

“Our kitchens are usually between 100-200 square metres big and serve a delivery radius of 1-2 kilometres and we sell exclusively on existing delivery platforms, such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, JustEat, Delivery Hero, and TakeAway. Food arrives warm in nice sustainable packaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, although Gebhardt thinks the future of takeout food will ultimately be drones delivering robot-cooked meals, he says autonomous kitchens are much more in reach than autonomous food delivery and already forms a large part of Keatz’s vision to build “highly automated kitchens”.

“It is much easier for us to iteratively automate our kitchens compared to drone-delivery, which is a fairly binary technological transition,” he explains. “Our existing cloud kitchens today are already much more automated than traditional kitchens, from WiFi-connected convection ovens to a software supported food assembly process. At the end of the day high quality food preparation is an on-demand manufacturing problem: a customer orders a Burrito on UberEats and expects a warm meal 20 minutes later. This is quite a technological challenge we are trying to solve”.

To that end, Keatz’s cloud kitchens can be thought of as akin to a “factory operator”. Rather than developing autonomous kitchen hardware of its own, Gebhardt says the company is partnering with kitchen equipment and automation companies in a similar way to BMW partnering with companies to build its car manufacturing plants.

“Despite our ambition to automate the kitchen, we are also very keen on being a great employer,” he adds, citing above market pay and comprehensive training opportunities. Today, Keatz employs around 200 people across its 10 kitchens in Europe.

Keatz, a European ‘cloud kitchen’ startup, raises further €12M

Keatz, one of a growing number of so-called “cloud kitchens” — delivery only restaurant brands running on the rails of Deliveroo and UberEats — has raised €12 million in new funding.

Backing the round are existing investors Project A Ventures, Atlantic Labs, UStart, K Fund and JME Ventures, who are joined by RTP Global. It adds to €7 million raised last May and will be used by the Berlin-based company to further expand its roll-out of cloud kitchens across Europe.

Launched in Spring 2016, Keatz now operates 10 cloud kitchens across Europe, having expanded beyond Berlin to Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona and Munich. The startup’s network of satellite kitchens are designed to negate the high front-of-house costs found in conventional restaurants, while also selling takeout food that is better suited to delivery.

“We believe the last unsolved part in food delivery is the preparation of food itself,” Keatz co-founder Paul Gebhardt tells TechCrunch. “Delivery food today is often compromised and sold by companies focusing on hospitality and not delivery food. Classic brick and mortar restaurants simply have a different business model, namely hospitality, which is all about the experience and location and the food is meant to be eaten immediately. Nobody at Nandos or Byron Burger designed the food keeping in mind that the food might travel on a Deliveroo bike for another 15 miles, mostly upside down in a delivery bag”.

Similar to other cloud kitchen startups, such as France’s Taster, Gebhardt says Keatz is changing this by focusing exclusively on food “made for delivery,” including designing dishes that can withstand a minimum 15 journey. The startup has a portfolio of eight delivery-only food brands, which are all prepared in the same shared kitchens.

“Our kitchens are usually between 100-200 square metres big and serve a delivery radius of 1-2 kilometres and we sell exclusively on existing delivery platforms, such as Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, JustEat, Delivery Hero, and TakeAway. Food arrives warm in nice sustainable packaging,” he says.

Meanwhile, although Gebhardt thinks the future of takeout food will ultimately be drones delivering robot-cooked meals, he says autonomous kitchens are much more in reach than autonomous food delivery and already forms a large part of Keatz’s vision to build “highly automated kitchens”.

“It is much easier for us to iteratively automate our kitchens compared to drone-delivery, which is a fairly binary technological transition,” he explains. “Our existing cloud kitchens today are already much more automated than traditional kitchens, from WiFi-connected convection ovens to a software supported food assembly process. At the end of the day high quality food preparation is an on-demand manufacturing problem: a customer orders a Burrito on UberEats and expects a warm meal 20 minutes later. This is quite a technological challenge we are trying to solve”.

To that end, Keatz’s cloud kitchens can be thought of as akin to a “factory operator”. Rather than developing autonomous kitchen hardware of its own, Gebhardt says the company is partnering with kitchen equipment and automation companies in a similar way to BMW partnering with companies to build its car manufacturing plants.

“Despite our ambition to automate the kitchen, we are also very keen on being a great employer,” he adds, citing above market pay and comprehensive training opportunities. Today, Keatz employs around 200 people across its 10 kitchens in Europe.

To fund Y Combinator’s top startups, VCs scoop them before Demo Day

Hundreds gathered this week at San Francisco’s Pier 48 to see the more than 200 companies in Y Combinator’s Winter 2019 cohort present their two-minute pitches. The audience of venture capitalists, who collectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars, noted their favorites. The very best investors, however, had already had their pick of the litter.

What many don’t realize about the Demo Day tradition is that pitching isn’t a requirement; in fact, some YC graduates skip out on their stage opportunity altogether. Why? Because they’ve already raised capital or are in the final stages of closing a deal.

ZeroDown, Overview.AI and Catch are among the startups in YC’s W19 batch that forwent Demo Day this week, having already pocketed venture capital. ZeroDown, a financing solution for real estate purchases in the Bay Area, raised a round upwards of $10 million at a $75 million valuation, sources tell TechCrunch. ZeroDown hasn’t responded to requests for comment, nor has its rumored lead investor: Goodwater Capital.

Without requiring a down payment, ZeroDown purchases homes outright for customers and helps them work toward ownership with monthly payments determined by their income. The business was founded by Zenefits co-founder and former chief technology officer Laks Srini, former Zenefits chief operating officer Abhijeet Dwivedi and Hari Viswanathan, a former Zenefits staff engineer.

The founders’ experience building Zenefits, despite its shortcomings, helped ZeroDown garner significant buzz ahead of Demo Day. Sources tell TechCrunch the startup had actually raised a small seed round ahead of YC from former YC president Sam Altman, who recently stepped down from the role to focus on OpenAI, an AI research organization. Altman is said to have encouraged ZeroDown to complete the respected Silicon Valley accelerator program, which, if nothing else, grants its companies a priceless network with which no other incubator or accelerator can compete.

Overview .AI’s founders’ resumes are impressive, too. Russell Nibbelink and Christopher Van Dyke were previously engineers at Salesforce and Tesla, respectively. An industrial automation startup, Overview is developing a smart camera capable of learning a machine’s routine to detect deviations, crashes or anomalies. TechCrunch hasn’t been able to get in touch with Overview’s team or pinpoint the size of its seed round, though sources confirm it skipped Demo Day because of a deal.

Catch, for its part, closed a $5.1 million seed round co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners and Steve Jang prior to Demo Day. Instead of pitching their health insurance platform at the big event, Catch published a blog post announcing its first feature, The Catch Health Explorer.

“This is only the first glimpse of what we’re building this year,” Catch wrote in the blog post. “In a few months, we’ll be bringing end-to-end health insurance enrollment for individual plans into Catch to provide the best health insurance enrollment experience in the country.”

TechCrunch has more details on the healthtech startup’s funding, which included participation from Kleiner Perkins, the Urban Innovation Fund and the Graduate Fund.

Four more startups, Truora, Middesk, Glide and FlockJay had deals in the final stages when they walked onto the Demo Day stage, deciding to make their pitches rather than skip the big finale. Sources tell TechCrunch that renowned venture capital firm Accel invested in both Truora and Middesk, among other YC W19 graduates. Truora offers fast, reliable and affordable background checks for the Latin America market, while Middesk does due diligence for businesses to help them conduct risk and compliance assessments on customers.

Finally, Glide, which allows users to quickly and easily create well-designed mobile apps from Google Sheets pages, landed support from First Round Capital, and FlockJay, the operator an online sales academy that teaches job seekers from underrepresented backgrounds the skills and training they need to pursue a career in tech sales, secured investment from Lightspeed Venture Partners, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Pre-Demo Day M&A

Raising ahead of Demo Day isn’t a new phenomenon. Companies, thanks to the invaluable YC network, increase their chances at raising, as well as their valuation, the moment they enroll in the accelerator. They can begin chatting with VCs when they see fit, and they’re encouraged to mingle with YC alumni, a process that can result in pre-Demo Day acquisitions.

This year, Elph, a blockchain infrastructure startup, was bought by Brex, a buzzworthy fintech unicorn that itself graduated from YC only two years ago. The deal closed just one week before Demo Day. Brex’s head of engineering, Cosmin Nicolaescu, tells TechCrunch the Elph five-person team — including co-founders Ritik Malhotra and Tanooj Luthra, who previously founded the Box-acquired startup Steem — were being eyed by several larger companies as Brex negotiated the deal.

“For me, it was important to get them before batch day because that opens the floodgates,” Nicolaescu told TechCrunch. “The reason why I really liked them is they are very entrepreneurial, which aligns with what we want to do. Each of our products is really like its own business.”

Of course, Brex offers a credit card for startups and has no plans to dabble with blockchain or cryptocurrency. The Elph team, rather, will bring their infrastructure security know-how to Brex, helping the $1.1 billion company build its next product, a credit card for large enterprises. Brex declined to disclose the terms of its acquisition.

Hunting for the best deals

Y Combinator partners Michael Seibel and Dalton Caldwell, and moderator Josh Constine, speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images)

Ultimately, it’s up to startups to determine the cost at which they’ll give up equity. YC companies raise capital under the SAFE model, or a simple agreement for future equity, a form of fundraising invented by YC. Basically, an investor makes a cash investment in a YC startup, then receives company stock at a later date, typically upon a Series A or post-seed deal. YC made the switch from investing in startups on a pre-money safe basis to a post-money safe in 2018 to make cap table math easier for founders.

Michael Seibel, the chief executive officer of YC, says the accelerator works with each startup to develop a personalized fundraising plan. The businesses that raise at valuations north of $10 million, he explained, do so because of high demand.

“Each company decides on the amount of money they want to raise, the valuation they want to raise at, and when they want to start fundraising,” Seibel told TechCrunch via email. “YC is only an advisor and does not dictate how our companies operate. The vast majority of companies complete fundraising in the 1 to 2 months after Demo Day. According to our data, there is little correlation between the companies who are most in demand on Demo Day and ones who go on to become extremely successful. Our advice to founders is not to over optimize the fundraising process.”

Though Seibel says the majority raise in the months following Demo Day, it seems the very best investors know to be proactive about reviewing and investing in the batch before the big event.

Khosla Ventures, like other top VC firms, meets with YC companies as early as possible, partner Kristina Simmons tells TechCrunch, even scheduling interviews with companies in the period between when a startup is accepted to YC to before they actually begin the program. Another Khosla partner, Evan Moore, echoed Seibel’s statement, claiming there isn’t a correlation between the future unicorns and those that raise capital ahead of Demo Day. Moore is a co-founder of DoorDash, a YC graduate now worth $7.1 billion. DoorDash closed its first round of capital in the weeks following Demo Day.

“I think a lot of the activity before demo day is driven by investor FOMO,” Moore wrote in an email to TechCrunch. “I’ve had investors ask me how to get into a company without even knowing what the company does! I mostly see this as a side effect of a good thing: YC has helped tip the scale toward founders by creating an environment where investors compete. This dynamic isn’t what many investors are used to, so every batch some complain about valuations and how easy the founders have it, but making it easier for ambitious entrepreneurs to get funding and pursue their vision is a good thing for the economy.”

This year, given the number of recent changes at YC — namely the size of its latest batch — there was added pressure on the accelerator to showcase its best group yet. And while some did tell TechCrunch they were especially impressed with the lineup, others indeed expressed frustration with valuations.

Many YC startups are fundraising at valuations at or higher than $10 million. For context, that’s actually perfectly in line with the median seed-stage valuation in 2018. According to PitchBook, U.S. startups raised seed rounds at a median post-valuation of $10 million last year; so far this year, companies are raising seed rounds at a slightly higher post-valuation of $11 million. With that said, many of the startups in YC’s cohorts are not as mature as the average seed-stage company. Per PitchBook, a company can be several years of age before it secures its seed round.

Nonetheless, pricey deals can come as a disappointment to the seed investors who find themselves at YC every year but because their reputations aren’t as lofty as say, Accel, aren’t able to book pre-Demo Day meetings with YC’s top of class.

The question is who is Y Combinator serving? And the answer is founders, not investors. YC is under no obligation to serve up deals of a certain valuation nor is it responsible for which investors gain access to its best companies at what time. After all, startups are raking in larger and larger rounds, earlier in their lifespans; shouldn’t YC, a microcosm for the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, advise their startups to charge the best investors the going rate?

Gig workers need health & benefits — Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government,” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to become an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it has raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, Kindred Ventures, and NYCA Partners. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity,” recalls Tyrrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy, where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet,” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance “paid” time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about which benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose which programs you want and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off and retirement balances up 300 percent in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income-smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way,” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. Twenty-one percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services, including NerdWallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club founder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brought on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

Robotics process automation startup UiPath raising $400M at more than $7B valuation

UiPath, a robotics process automation platform targeting IT businesses, is raising more than $400 million in Series D funding from venture capital investors at a valuation north of $7 billion, sources have confirmed to TechCrunch following a report from Business Insider.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment.

UiPath, founded in 2005, has raised $409 million to date, meaning the new round of capital will double the total capital invested in the startup, as well as its valuation. Its $225 million Series C, raised just six months ago, valued the business at $3 billion, according to PitchBook. UiPath is backed by top-tier investors CapitalG and Sequoia Capital, which co-led its Series C, as well as Accel, Credo Ventures and Earlybird Venture Capital, among others.

The latest funding round is being led by a public institutional investor.

UiPath develops automated software workflows meant to facilitate the tedious, everyday tasks within business operations. RPA is probably a misnomer. It’s not necessarily a robot in the way we think of it today. It’s more like a highly sophisticated macro recorder or workflow automation tool, letting a computer handle a series of highly repeatable activities in a common workflow, like accounts payable.

For example, the process could start by scanning a check, then use OCR to read the payer and the amount, add that information to an Excel spreadsheet and send an email to a human to confirm it has been done. Humans still have a role, especially in processing exceptions, but it provides a way to bring a level of automation to legacy systems, which might not otherwise benefit from more modern tooling.

The company began raising private capital in 2015 and has since experienced rapid growth of its valuation and annual recurring revenue (ARR). UiPath garnered a $1.1 billion valuation with its Series B in March 2018, more than doubled it with its Series C and is again seeing a 2x increase in value with this latest round. This is a result of its swelling ARR.

The company says it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in less than two years. With its Series C, it counted 1,800 enterprise customers and was adding six new customers a day. Sources tell TechCrunch that UiPath did 180 million in ARR last year and is on track to do $450 million in ARR in 2019.