Picfair gives every photographer on its marketplace their own store

Picfair, the photo marketplace that competes with Getty and Shutterstock by giving photographers a fairer deal, is adding a major update to its offering today. The London-based startup is launching Picfair Stores, giving the 35,000 photographers on its marketplace the ability to create their own free independent online store. Customers who buy from a Picfair Store can choose a licensed digital copy or a physical print.

“We’re moving beyond being just a new generation stock image marketplace,” Picfair founder Benji Lanyado, who used to be a journalist at The Guardian, tells me. “With stores, and prints, and more… we’re becoming a fully featured commercial ecosystem for photographers. At the heart of it all: the principle that anyone should be able to make money from their images, simply and fairly”.

In addition, every image on a photographer’s individual Picfair Store will also be available simultaneously on Picfair’s marketplace, which Lanyado likens to “thousands of local image stores across the globe, with a central Amazon-style megastore they all feed in to”.

He also says it is the first time anyone has combined a marketplace, with the added control of website builders, such as Wix or Squarespace, and the on-demand print functionality of Smugmug or Zenfolio, all built with amateur photographers in mind (although the line to amateur and professional is becoming increasingly blurred).

“Picfair is uniting all of this. The control of a website builder. The commercial structures of an e-commerce platform. The exposure of a marketplace, with added price control and fair royalty splits,” Lanyado says.

Less tech-driven but perhaps equally significant, Picfair has recently launched a photo agency unit, building on top of its bread and butter business of selling image licenses to editorial and marketing companies. It came about slightly accidentally, says Lanyado, after brands and creative agencies started approaching the company asking if it could help them find photographers across the globe.

Initially we just introduced the photographers to the clients directly, like idiots,” he tells me. “Then we started acting like non-idiots and offered our services as a photographer-finder agency, with a very hand black book of 35,000 photographers around the world. We’ve already worked with Google, VisitBritain, Ogilvy and a few other big brands too. The cool bit: all of our leads have come from our community. Most of our photographers aren’t professionals, and their jobs cover the creative gamut: production people in creative agencies, marketing folk etc. The marketplace is generating leads for the agency!”.

Meanwhile, Picfair has just closed a $540,000 equity crowdfunding round. This saw many of its photographers take part, meaning that the company is now part photographer-owned. It adds to a £1.5 million seed round raised a year ago.

Chinese electric scooter startup Niu files for $150M U.S. public offering

Chinese electric scooter startup Niu Technologies has filed for an initial public offering on Nasdaq to raise up to $150 million. In its form, Niu said it is “the largest lithium-ion battery-powered e-scooters company in China,” according to data from China Insights Consultancy, and also a market leader in Europe based on sales volume.

Founded in 2014 and based in Beijing, Niu says it currently holds a market share of 26% in China based on sales volume. Niu’s debut will the latest in a string of recent Chinese tech IPOs, the most prominent of which include the recent Hong Kong listings of Xiaomi and Meituan.

Niu’s scooters connect with an app that give drivers maintenance and performance data and also delivers firmware updates. As of the end of June, Niu claims it had sold more than 431,500 smart electric scooters in China, Europe and other markets.

According to the CIC’s data, China is the largest market for electric two-wheeled vehicles, with retail sales expected to increase to $13 million by 2022, up from $8 billion in 2017. Niu says its growth markets also include Southeast Asia and India, where scooters are a popular form of transportation.

In its filing, Niu said its net revenue in 2017 was RMB 769.4 million ($116.2 million), an increase of 116.8% from RMB 354.8 million in 2016. Its net losses during that time decreased to RMB 184.7 million ($27.9 million) in 2017 from RMB 232.7 million in 2016. More recently, net revenue for the first six months of 2018 was RMB 557.1 million ($84.2 million), an increase of 95.4% from RMB 285.1 million the same period a year earlier. Net loss was RMB 314.9 million ($47.6 million) during that period, compared to RMB 96.6 million the year before.

 

Understanding Renaud Laplanche’s next Upgraded act

Renaud Laplanche spent ten years building LendingClub. In the process, he created an industry from scratch. Circumventing conventional banking channels for consumer credit began in 1996 when Chris Larsen started E-LOAN, which ultimately led to Prosper Marketplace. But LendingClub, which Laplanche founded in 2007, was and remains the poster child for the business of marketplace lending. The industry’s short history has been volatile, characterized by both triumphant hype and utter lack of confidence.

History of the Marketplace Lending Industry, CB Insights

While LendingClub has struggled in the public markets since their late 2014 IPO, they have managed to propel their industry into significance, while rapidly expanding their share of the personal loan market to 10%.

After his well-publicized departure in May 2016, Laplanche got started on his next venture in a hurry. Just a few months later he started Credify, ultimately renamed to Upgrade, a company that bears a striking resemblance to LendingClub. In just two years Upgrade has raised $142 million in funding, while originating more than $1 billion in loans since August 2017.

With Upgrade, Laplanche has the opportunity to start fresh with the benefit of hindsight. The initial promise of LendingClub and their competitors was unbundling the banks. Now, to persist and grow, marketplace lenders have realized they need to rebundle, providing an array of bank-like services to better serve their end customers. This post explores what Laplanche is doing differently this time with Upgrade.

Total Addressable Market ≠ Value Capture

There has been a general recognition across many fintech businesses that marketplace business models aren’t enough. The mutually-beneficial arrangement of marketplace lending is a perfect example. Superior customer experience, expedited loan decision, quick receipt of funds, and lower operational costs without legacy infrastructure were the selling points. Charles Moldow famously called it a “trillion-dollar opportunity” in 2014.

He may still be right, but in order to realize the opportunity, marketplace lenders need to capture a larger, more regular share of borrower’s attention. Loans may be high-volume purchases, but they’re not high-frequency transactions. So when a platform like LendingClub facilitates a loan so someone can refinance their outstanding credit card debt, is there really a relationship with the customer there? Capital is provided, customer service is available, and monthly payments are made. That’s all there is to it.

Total addressable market (TAM) is frequently used to assess opportunity. A critical part of the TAM estimation process might have been overlooked in the early assessments of the alternative lending industry. The large numbers in the figure below reflect an alluring market that LendingClub, Prosper, Avant, Upstart, OneMain, Best Egg and others have attempted to capitalize upon.

The notion of a replacement cycle, which I’ll borrow from Michael Mauboussin, is an important consideration here, particularly in a high volume, low frequency transaction relationship such as consumer lending. Just because a borrower refinances their credit card debt with a loan from LendingClub, there’s little guarantee that all of the money spent on acquiring that customer will lead to future transactions with that customer. Yet, in order for these companies to succeed, the average revenue per user (ARPU) is going to have to rise through some combination of repeat customers and complementary services to deepen the relationship and create new revenue channels.

The market opportunity for marketplace Lenders, LendingClub Investor Day 2017

With this realization in mind, fintech players across the board have focused on deepening relationships with customers to drive sales and lower SG&A costs. Customer acquisition is a major component of the income statement for these companies. The more engagement a lender has with their end customer, the greater the chance they stand to not only be called upon when a borrower needs to borrow again, but ultimately pinpoint opportunities for product recommendations.

And that’s exactly what Upgrade is doing. In many ways, they’re quite similar to LendingClub. Upgrade offers personal loans between $1,000 and $50,000 over three-to-five-year repayment periods at rates competitive with major banks. LendingClub varies a bit in the principal amount offerings and APRs, but they essentially do the same thing. Loans are originated through WebBank, the partner bank that also works with LendingClub. Operationally, there’s a blockchain component for data remediation and security purposes. However, the extent and value of this application are unclear.

Marrying Credit with Financial Wellness

The notion of financial wellness is increasingly popular among consumer fintech companies, as well as incumbent financial institutions. It reflects a transition away from a purely transactional relationship to a fiduciary one, as we’ve also seen in the wealth management industry. The tricky thing about this is that although it may be the right thing to do, late fees and overdraft penalties make up a sizeable portion of traditional bank revenue.

Where Upgrade differs from LendingClub is in their customer engagement model. Upgrade provides several features to customers that resemble a conventional personal financial management (PFM) app. Their Credit Health service offers free advice and monitoring tools, personalized recommendations, and customized updates for individual credit scores and underlying rationale. Additionally, they offer a financial education tool open to the public called Credit Health Insights, which offers tips and tricks for debt management and financial wellness. At the surface, there’s little differentiation here. A free credit score is becoming table stakes for any financial institution, and personalized insights are to be expected.

Upgrade’s borrower value proposition, LendIt 2018 Conference

In Upgrade’s case, however, the framing of the dual service is compelling. Typically, online lenders only approve 10-15% of applicants. While the credit underwriting models are looking for the most compelling borrower profiles who will pay back their loans, the majority of interested borrowers are sent back to the drawing board.

A major focus of Upgrade is to build the credit of the other 85-90% of applicants who are typically rejected so that they improve their profile and obtain a loan in the future. Credit repair and financial wellness are underserved markets today, although companies like Bloom Credit are working to change the record. This product combination helps to unify the interests of Upgrade and borrowers, both approved and rejected.

Reinventing Consumer Credit?

At the LendIt Conference in 2017, Laplanche concluded his presentation with a reference to the Wright Brothers. He discussed how he was enamored with their ability to combine two things to create something entirely new, which in their case was “wheeling and flying.” A year later, he returned to LendIt with a new product release that borrowed from the innovation strategy of Orville and Wilbur.

Upgrade launched a first of its kind product, a Personal Credit Line, a hybrid of a credit card and an unsecured loan. Here’s how it works: customers get approved for up to $50,000 in credit, from which they can draw down as needed. They only pay interest on what’s borrowed, over the course of a 12-60-month timeframe. The interest rate is also fixed over the term of the loan.

Upgrade’s Personal Credit Line, a hybrid of a personal loan and a credit card, Upgrade

The product is built on the premise that the level of innovation in the origination of consumer credit has been somewhat limited. Laplanche attempted to reinvent it once with the creation of LendingClub. In some ways, it worked. Personal loans originated by fintech lenders account for roughly a third of outstanding consumer loans according to Transunion. Now he’s trying to do it again.

First Mover Disadvantage in Consumer Fintech

When I first read the press release for the Personal Credit Line, I thought it was a very compelling way to expand the menu of options to qualified consumers. It puts more control in the hands of the borrower, so they can avoid the vicious cycle of consumer debt. I was also reminded of a comment made by Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, after Wealthfront released their “Portfolio Line of Credit” product in April 2017. He said that while it might sound flashy, there’s nothing holding Schwab or Fidelity back from offering the same product tomorrow.

What’s so challenging about consumer-facing fintech companies is that customers are expensive to acquire, they’re difficult to keep, and products are easy to replicate. Providing a free credit score is easily accessible through a partnership with Equifax or Experian. It’s commoditized. The situation is similar with personal financial management tools. This Personal Credit Line seems awfully similar. What’s to stop Chase or Goldman’s Marcus from offering an identical product, perhaps with even better rates? U.S. Bank just launched a similar product, albeit for a different use case, called Simple Loan. It’s a $100 to $1,000 loan marketed as a payday lending alternative, with a roughly 20% lower interest rate than typical payday lender offers.

There is something to be said for being first to market, but ease of replication limits the defensibility of that position. There is a clear interest in an expansion into new products, which will continue to help Upgrade to differentiate the value proposition to consumers, and maybe one day small businesses. The unfortunate reality is that bigger players with an existing customer base and a lower cost of capital are on their tail.

Forget about Democratization

Renaud Laplanche rings the bell with his team at LendingClub (DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

The real insight that distinguishes Upgrade from LendingClub is the profile of the users. On the supply side of the marketplace, Upgrade only welcomes institutional investors. LendingClub was, and still is, marketed to individuals and institutions.

The peer-to-peer model turned out to be a little too idealistic to serve as the foundation for a business. The concept of a marketplace is really attractive – the ability to invest in others, as cliché as that may sound, has a philanthropic twist to it that even implies a social good. Or, at the very least, an alignment of interests. Except interests aren’t aligned because of the mercurial nature of retail investors, which makes for unstable sources of capital.

LendingClub’s original business model, in the pure P2P form, was reliant on the ability to create a new asset class. The notion of investing in consumer credit may sound compelling, and return prospects may be even more appealing. But, you can’t bootstrap an asset class and base a business model around retail adoption. LendingClub had to solve for distribution of their service, as well as the dissemination of the broader concept of unsecured consumer lending as an asset class.

On Laplanche’s second go around with Upgrade, there’s no more promise of democratization of a new asset class. Instead, large multi-billion-dollar credit investors own the supply side of the marketplace. As a result, there’s a more stable capital base of institutional investors who know what they’re investing in and the reason why they’re investing in it.

What Laplanche did this time around was base his business model around stability. In this market it can pay to be a follower. LendingClub touts the notion that they have “brought a new asset class to investors,” but that education campaign came at a serious cost. It also invited boiler room-like sales behavior from competitors. Upgrade is stepping in after a decade of marketing to scale an untested industry to the masses. Fortunately, a lot of the work has already been done for them.

How Different Can You Be?

Upgrade is led by as experienced and forward-thinking of a leader as they come in the marketplace lending industry. They expect to originate over $2 billion loans in 2018 and hit profitability by year-end as well. They’re redefining convention when it comes to consumer credit products.

The question, however, remains: how long can the novelty last? Consumer fintech is fiercely competitive. It’s also increasingly occupied by incumbents with far lower costs of capital, large existing customer bases, and the ability to experiment in a way that a startup cannot. The unsecured consumer lending space has attracted mountains of capital in the past five years, but the opportunity is clearly defined. The number of lenders issuing more than 10,000 personal loans per year has more than doubled since 2011.

There’s a network effect component to marketplace lending businesses, particularly as lenders are able to maintain more connected relationships with consumers. But when it comes to standing apart from the rest of the pack, a differentiated product offering isn’t a very wide moat.

VCs say Silicon Valley isn’t the gold mine it used to be

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’

The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising rents are making it impossible for new blood to make a living, let alone build businesses. And according to a recent survey, 46 percent of Bay Area residents want to get the hell out, an increase from 34 percent two years ago.

Needless to say, the future of Silicon Valley was top of mind on stage at Disrupt.

“It’s hard to make a difference in San Francisco as a single entrepreneur,” said J.D. Vance, the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and a managing partner at Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, which backs seed-stage companies based outside Silicon Valley. “It’s not as a hard to make a difference as a successful entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio.”

In conversation with Vance, Revolution CEO Steve Case said he’s noticed a “mega-trend” emerging. Founders from cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Portland are opting to stay in their hometowns instead of moving to U.S. innovation hubs like San Francisco.

“The sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

“We are seeing the beginnings of a slowing of what has been a brain drain the last 20 years,” Case said. “It’s not just watching where the capital flows, it’s watching where the talent flows. And the sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

Farewell, San Francisco

“It’s too expensive to live here,” said Aileen Lee, the founder of seed-stage VC firm Cowboy Ventures, amid a conversation with leading venture capitalists Spark Capital general partner Megan Quinn and Benchmark general partner Sarah Tavel .

“I know that there are a lot of people in the Bay Area that are trying to work on that problem and I hope that they are successful,” Lee added. “It’s an amazing place to live and we’ve made it really challenging for people to live here and not worry about making ends meet.”

One of Cowboy’s portfolio companies opted to relocate from Silicon Valley to Colorado when it came time to scale their business. That kind of move would’ve historically been seen as a failure. Today, it may be a sign of strong business acumen.

Quinn said that of all 28 of Spark’s growth-stage portfolio companies, Raleigh, North Carolina-based Pendo has the easiest time recruiting folks locally and from the Bay Area.

She advises her Bay Area-based late-stage companies to open a second office outside of the Valley where lower-cost talent is available.

“We often say go to [flySFO.com], draw a three-hour circle around San Francisco where they have direct flights, find a city that has a university and open up a second office as quickly as possible,” Quinn said.

Still, all three firms invest in a lot of companies based in San Francisco. Of Benchmark’s 10 most recent investments, for example, eight were based in SF, according to Crunchbase.

“I used to believe really strongly if you wanted to build a multi-billion dollar company you had to be based here,” Tavel said. “I’ve stopped giving that soap speech.”

Underestimated talent

A lot of Bay Area VCs have been blind to the droves of tech talent located outside the region. Believe it or not, there are great engineers in America’s small- and medium-sized markets too.

At Disrupt, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton announced the firm would launch an accelerator to further amplify companies led by underestimated founders. The program will have cohorts based in four cities; San Francisco was noticeably absent from that list.

Instead, the firm, which invests in underrepresented founders and recently raised a $36 million fund, will work with companies in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London and one more city, which will be determined by a public vote. Aniyia Williams, the founder of Tinsel and Black & Brown Founders, will spearhead the Philadelphia effort.

“For us, it’s about closing that wealth gap to address inequity in tech,” Williams said. “There needs to be more active participation from everyone.”

Hamilton added that for her, the tech talent in LA and London is undeniable.

“There is a lot of money and a lot of investors … it reminds me of three years ago in Silicon Valley,” Hamilton said.

Silicon Valley vs. China

Silicon Valley’s demise may not be just as a result of increased costs of living or investors overlooking talent in other geographies. It may be because of heightened competition abroad.

Doug Leone, an early- and growth-stage investor at Sequoia Capital, said at Disrupt that he’s noticed a very different work ethic in China.

Chinese entrepreneurs, he explained, are more ruthless than their American counterparts and they’re putting in a whole lot more hours.

“I’ve had dinner in China until after 10 p.m. and people go to work after 10 p.m.,” Leone recalled.

“We don’t see that in the U.S. I’m not saying the U.S. founders oughta do that but those are the differences. They are similar in character. They are similar in dreams. They are similar in how they want to change the world. They are ultra-driven … The Chinese founders have a half other gear because I think they are a little more desperate.”

Much of this, however, has been said before and still, somehow, Silicon Valley remained the place to be for investors and startup entrepreneurs.

The reality is, those engaged in tech culture are always anxiously awaiting for the bubble to pop, the market to crash and for “peak Valley” to finally arrive.

Maybe, just maybe, Silicon Valley is forever.

Here’s more of our coverage of Disrupt 2018.

uBiome is jumping into therapeutics with a healthy $83 million in Series C financing

23andMe, IBM and now uBiome is the next tech company to jump into the lucrative multi-billion dollar drug discovery market.

The company started out with a consumer gut health test to check whether your intestines carry the right kind of bacteria for healthy digestion but has since expanded to include over 250,000 samples for everything from the microbes on your skin to vaginal health — the largest data set in the world for these types of samples, according to the company.

Founder Jessica Richman now says there’s a wider opportunity to use this data to create value in therapeutics.

To support its new drug discovery efforts, the San Francisco-based startup will be moving its therapeutics unit into new Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters and appointing former Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez to the board of directors as well.

The company has a healthy pile of cash to help build out that new HQ, too, with a fresh $83 million Series C, lead by OS Fund and in participation with 8VC, Y Combinator, Dentsu Ventures and others.

The drug discovery market is slated to be worth nearly $86 billion by 2022, according to BCC Research numbers. New technologies — those that solve logistics issues and shorten the time between research and getting a drug to market in particular — are driving the growth and that’s where uBiome thinks it can get into the game.

“This financing allows us to expand our product portfolio, increase our focus on patent assets and further raise our clinical profile, especially as we begin to focus on commercialization of drug discovery and development of our patent assets,” Richman said.

Though its unclear at this time which drug maker the company might partner up with, Richman did say there would be plenty to announce later on that front.

So far, the company has published over 30 peer-reviewed papers on microbiome research, has entered into research partnerships with the likes of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and leading research institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford and has previously raised $22 million in funding. The additional VC cash puts the total amount raised to $105 million to date.

Cleo, the ‘digital assistant’ that replaces your banking apps, picks up $10M Series A led by Balderton

When Cleo, the London-based ‘digital assistant’ that wants to replace your banking apps, quietly entered the U.S., the company couldn’t have expected to be an instant hit. Many better funded British startups have failed to ‘break America’. However, just four months later, the fintech upstart counts 350,000 users across the pond — claiming more than 600,000 active users in the U.K., U.S. and Canada in total — and says it is adding 30,000 new signups each week. All of which hasn’t gone unnoticed by investors.

Already backed by some of the biggest VC names in the London tech scene — including Entrepreneur First, Moonfruit founder Wendy Tan White, Skype founder Niklas Zennström, Wonga founder Errol Damelin, TransferWise founder Taavet Hinrikus, and LocalGlobe — Cleo is adding Balderton Capital to the list.

The European venture capital firm, which has previously invested in fintech unicorn Revolut and the well-established GoCardless, has led Cleo’s $10 million Series A round, in which I understand most early backers, including Zennström, also followed on. One source told me the Series A gives the hot London startup a post-money valuation of around £30 million (~$39.7m), although Cleo declined to comment.

In a call with co-founder and CEO Barney Hussey-Yeo, he explained that the new capital will be used to continue scaling the company, with further international expansion the name of the game. Hussey-Yeo says Cleo will be targeting Western Europe, the Americas, and Australasia, aiming to launch in a whopping 22 countries in the next 12 months, as Cleo bids to become the “default interface” for millennials interacting and managing their money.

Primarily accessed via Facebook Messenger, the AI-powered chatbot gives insights into your spending across multiple accounts and credit cards, broken down by transaction, category or merchant. In addition, Cleo lets you take a number of actions based on the financial data it has gleaned. You can choose to put money aside for a rainy day or specific goal, send money to your Facebook Messenger contacts, donate to charity, set spending alerts, and more.

However, in the context of traction and Cleo’s broader global ambitions, it is the decision not to become a bank in its own right, that Hussey-Yeo feels is really beginning to bear fruit. His argument has always been that you don’t need to be a bank to become the primary way users interface with their finances, and that without the regulatory and capital burden that becoming a fully licensed bank brings, you can scale much more quickly. I have a feeling that strategy — and its pros and cons — has a long way to play out just yet.

uBeam wireless power’s CEO Meredith Perry steps aside amidst B2B pivot

After repeatedly missing self-imposed deadlines for progress on its wireless charging-at-a-distance phone case, uBeam’s CEO Meredith Perry has decided to shift out of the CEO position and into a board member and senior advisor role. She’d founded the company in 2011 from her dorm room and brought in over $40 million in funding by selling a wide range of elite investors on her vision for a cordless future, including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, CrunchFund (disclosure: started by TechCrunch’s founder), Marissa Mayer and Mark Cuban.

Now rather than trying to build its own consumer products like wireless power transmitters and receivers that could charge your phone from across the room using ultrasound frequencies, uBeam is pivoting to licensing its technology for use in other companies’ products.

“Meredith made the decision to step down as CEO. She wanted the company to hire a CEO who had experience in overseeing the rollout of a b2b electronics product,” tweeted one of the startup’s lead investors, Mark Suster of Upfront Capital. Axios’ Dan Primack reported the news earlier today. TechCrunch spoke to Perry but she declined to comment on the record.

For the interim, uBeam’s head of HR and finance Jacqueline McCauley, who joined in 2016, will lead the company. In a blog post today, she announced that “Meredith felt it was time to bring on a seasoned executive in the electronics field to lead the company through its commercialization phase. The company has begun a search for this new CEO.”

uBeam had wowed investors and AllThingsD conference attendees in 2011 with a demo showing it could deliver at least some power over a distance of a few feet. A source at one point said uBeam was holding talks with top retail and dining chains, and insinuated one of the world’s top phone makers might build on its technology.

But the startup made big promises about public demonstrations and the efficiency of its technology it couldn’t keep. In 2015 Perry had told TechCrunch real-life public demos would be ready the next year, which came and went.

In 2016, things started to fall apart. The startup’s former VP of Engineering Paul Reynolds wrote a series of blog posts accusing uBeam’s technology of not working, and noted that “When I left it was an ugly departure, but was reported to the investors as ‘the VP Engineering left for personal reasons’ — personal reasons being ‘sick of putting up with this bullshit.’” He also revealed that uBeam’s original CTO and new CFO had left the company, and that Perry’s co-founder Nora Dweck had sued her over an unfair equity split (and settled).

It wasn’t until 2017 that uBeam gave two limited public demonstrations at the Upfront Ventures conference and to USA Today. It proved that an impractically large uBeam transmitter could deliver enough power over the distance of four to 10 feet to make multiple phones signal they were charging. But the company never opened itself up to more scrutiny regarding just how much power it was delivering, how fast a phone would actually charge and whether the tech could surmount practical issues like phones moving or being blocked by clothing.

Questions began to mount about whether uBeam’s approach could produce a marketable product in a palatable form factor with real utility. In the meantime, larger competitors like WattUp-maker Energous and COTA-maker Ossia have started to make real progress on over the air wireless charging. A recent deep-dive by PC Mag revealed how these two companies are starting to be able to deliver 1 watt of power across a room. But Energous and Ossia executives were careful to be realistic in their predictions about the hurdles to delivering rapid phone charging at a distance and how many years they’d need to get there.

Now with Perry stepping down, uBeam will shift gears and move to the same B2B licensing model Energous and Ossia use. They’ll now be directly competing to get their wireless power transmitters and receivers built into other products such as televisions, sound bar speakers, phone cases and more. But the industry is taking a while to mature. Energous, a public company that had raised $117 million, is trading at $10.62, down from a peak above $22 earlier this year and $15 in mid-2017. Ossia has only raised $25 million.

A bulky early uBeam transmitter prototype

Apple last year announced it was building a less ambitious AirPower near-field wireless charging pad that could juice up an AirPods case sitting on it. That was supposed to arrive in “early 2018,” but there was no mention of it onstage at the recent iPhone XS launch event. Today’s Qi-standard wireless charging pads require direct contact with devices and some fidgeting to get them to connect.

uBeam’s stumbles may make it tough to hire or retain talent, and the organizational disruption amidst direct competition could cost it valuable time as it strives to get its tech ready for licensing. The startup’s audacious idea for a world without wires may still one day come to fruition. There remains big potential in the more technically feasible over the air charging of Internet of Things devices that don’t need much power. But uBeam could serve as a reminder to fellow startups that grand visions might make it easier to secure funding, but can raise expectations that are much harder to fulfill.

Hear about the keys to local investing at Startup Battlefield Africa with Omobola Johnson and Lexi Novitske

Omobola Johnson (Image: Flickr/World Economic Forum under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

TechCrunch Startup Battlefield is returning to Africa in December, this time in Lagos, Nigeria. We will have a day-long program full of our flagship Battlefield competition highlighting the best startups that Africa has to offer.

Not only that, we’ll have panel discussions designed to explore the continent’s rapidly developing technological infrastructure on the continent. To wit, I’m excited to announce the first two speakers who will don our stage with direct knowledge about investing Silicon Valley money in the local ecosystem.

Omobola Johnson is a senior partner at TLcom Capital and the former minister of communication technology for Nigeria. Her vast knowledge about the startup investing landscape comes from her 25-year tenure at Accenture where she served as the managing director.

As ICT minister, she focused on the execution of the National Broadband Plan, as well as promoting government interest in local venture capital through the development of a fund and a network of startup incubators. And at Accenture, she advised numerous startups in various industries on how to become competitive and help to strengthen the tech landscape.

Lexi Novitske

Lexi Novitske is the principal investment officer for Singularity Investments where she is responsible for managing investments in the firm’s Africa portfolio.

Novitske moved to Africa from the United States, having identified a unique approach to providing African startups with the capital necessary to thrive. Big surprise: It’s not just about writing a check and hoping for returns. It’s about understanding the complexities of the environment, modifying Western attitudes about business and working hard with your companies to ensure the best outcomes.

Johnson and Novitske are just the beginning of what we have to offer at Battlefield Africa technology. Stay tuned for more announcements of great speakers and get your tickets before they sell out.

Ghostery revamps its privacy-focused mobile browsers

Ghostery is launching new versions of its browsers for iOS and Android. In fact, Director of Product Jeremy Tillman said this is the first big update to Ghostery’s mobile browsers in several years.

It’s not that mobile wasn’t a priority for the team before this, but Tillman said, “In our previous company, we didn’t have a ton of resources — we always had to choose which thing to work on.” Apparently that changed last year with Ghostery’s acquisition by German browser company Cliqz.

The first big launch after the acquisition was Ghostery 8, the latest version of the team’s privacy-focused extension for desktop browsers. Next up: Bringing those features over to mobile.

Tillman said the goal was to create “a browser that can go toe-to-toe with Chrome” while also incorporating Ghostery’s privacy protection capabilities. Those capabilities include the ability to block different kinds of ad tracking by category (tracking for advertising, adult advertising and site analytics are turned on by default).

There’s also a built-in ad blocker, and Ghost Search, a privacy-focused search engine based on Cliqz technology that does not store any personally identifiable information. (If you’re not satisfied with the Ghost Search results, you can also see results from other search engines.) The presentation is different from a standard search engine, with three “dynamic result cards” that surface content as soon as you start entering search terms. And there’s Ghostery Tab, a home screen that highlights your favorite or most visited sites, as well as the latest news stories.

The Android version includes additional features, including AI-powered anti-tracking and “smart blocking” that’s supposed to improve page performance.

Tillman described the result as “a cleaner, faster, safer mobile browsing experience.” He also said that moving forward, Ghostery will be working to provide “an ecosystem of products” that “protect our users wherever they’re interacting with the Internet.”

The launch comes as the big Internet platforms face growing scrutiny over how they handle user data. Tillman argued that by simply giving consumers a more privacy-friendly alternative, “We’re sort of collectively negotiating a better Internet for them” — and he’s hoping Ghostery can be more involved as publishers try to find alternatives to advertising.

“Our goal isn’t to, say, topple Google and Facebook, but to provide that alternative to those that want it — both for content creators but also for users themselves,” he said.

Tandem CEO will tell you why building a bank is hard at Disrupt Berlin

Challenger banks, neobanks or digital-only banks… Whatever we choose to call them, Europe — and the U.K. in particular — has more than its fair share of bank upstarts battling it out for a slice of the growing fintech pie. One of those is Tandem, co-founded by financial technology veteran Ricky Knox, who we’re excited to announce will join us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin.

Tandem — or the so-called “Good Bank” — has been on quite a journey this year. Most recently the bank launched a competitive fixed savings product, pitting it against a whole host of incumbent and challenger banks. It followed the launch of the Tandem credit card in February, which competes well on cash-back and FX rates when spending abroad.

Both products are part of a wider strategy where, like many other consumer-facing fintechs, Tandem wants to become your financial control centre and connect you to and offer various financial services. These are either products of its own or through partnerships with other fintech startups and more established providers.

At the heart of this is the Tandem mobile app, which acts as a Personal Finance Manager (PFM), including letting you aggregate your non-Tandem bank account data from other bank accounts or credit cards you might have, in addition to managing any Tandem products you’ve taken out. The company recently acquired fintech startup Pariti to beef up its account aggregation features.

However, what makes Tandem’s recent progress all the more interesting is that it comes after a definite bump in the road last year. This saw the company temporarily lose its banking license and forced to make lay-offs following the partial collapse of a £35 million investment round from department store House of Fraser, due to restrictions on capital leaving China. The remedy was further investment from existing backers and the bold move to acquire Harrods Bank, the banking arm of the U.K.’s most famous luxury department store.

As you can see, there is plenty to talk about. And some. So, why not grab your ticket to Disrupt Berlin to listen to the Tandem story. The conference will take place on November 29-30.

In addition to fireside chats and panels, like this one, new startups will participate in the Startup Battlefield Europe to win the highly coveted Battlefield cup.


Ricky Knox

CEO & Co-Founder, Tandem

Ricky is a serial investor and entrepreuner. He has built five technology disruptors in fintech and telecoms, each of which also does a bit of good for the world.

Before Tandem he founded Azimo and Small World, two remittance businesses, and is managing partner of Hexagon Partners, a private equity firm. He built Tandem to be a digital bank that helps improve customers’ lives with money.

Ricky has a first class degree from Bristol University and an MBA from INSEAD.