Airbnb is buying trust during the COVID-19 travel slowdown

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

Airbnb’s recent moves in the wake of a global travel slowdown are interesting and worth understanding in chronological order. What it details is a company spending heavily today to keep up its future health. Demand will return to the world travel market in time — how much, no one knows — and Airbnb wants to be a well-liked participant in the return to form.

Building off our last look at the company, we should understand how Airbnb intends to not only survive, but come out the other side of the pandemic with enough user trust to get back to work

An IPO promise

Tips, tactics and cashflow strategies for startup survival during a crisis

We’re in unprecedented times and are likely at the beginning of a long journey back to normal  —  whatever the new “normal” turns out to be.

While governments rush to get debt-relief packages in place, the high-risk, high-reward tech sector will need something different. To survive, the community requires fancy footwork, hard choices and a lot of shared pain between founders, staff, investors, suppliers and customers.

With my startup Moonfruit, a DIY website and e-commerce platform I co-founded with Wendy Tan-White (now a VP at X) and eirik pettersen (currently CTO at Secret Escapes), we survived the 2001 dot-com crash, when the entire tech sector was decimated for years to come, as well as the 2008 financial crisis, when we were lucky enough to experience rapid countercyclical growth. These experiences made us stronger and ultimately led to our successful exit in 2012 and post-acquisition growth to $150 million ARR.

I’ve spent the last five years as a general partner at Entrepreneur First, raising $200 million of funds and advising hundreds of startups through formation, growth and fundraising — but right now I work with many of them daily on survival.

For most companies, I think this crisis will look more like 2001 than 2008, though there will be some who are lucky enough to grow through it. The good news is, having been through this before, I know there are things you can do as a founder or as an investor that can mitigate the damage. In the U.K., I’m in several conversations about making emergency equity funding more available, and I hope this happens all over the world too.

Here is a tactical guide to surviving the crisis.

Amid unicorn layoffs, Boston startups reflect on the future

As domestic and global economies grapple with the COVID-19 era, its impact on startups is coming into focus: All will be impacted, many will suffer and some will close.

Boston, a city that TechCrunch keeps tabs on, has seen a number of well-known startups struggle in recent weeks. Their misfortunes come quickly after companies in the region recorded huge venture raises, generating notable momentum.

In December, TechCrunch wrote that “despite winter’s chill, the Northeast’s tech ecosystem is white-hot,” taking into account Boston’s historical gains in the venture world. And earlier in 2020 we covered a few huge rounds that the city’s own Toast and Flywire had put together; worth $520 million as a pair, the two venture deals stood out for how large they were and how close to one another they were announced.

Indeed, looking at preliminary venture data from Crunchbase, Boston was on track to crush its 2019 tally of venture rounds of $50 million or more in 2020. That record-setting pace is now in doubt. 

To get a feel for Boston’s new reality, we’ve collected the region’s recent news and spoke to area investors and founders, including David Cancel of Drift (the previous founder of Compete and other companies), Drew Volpe of First Star VC and a team of folks from Underscore VC.

TechCrunch had intended to start a monthly series on Boston and its venture capital and startup scenes later this month. We’re kicking it off early because the news is already here.

Slowdown

Earlier this week, restaurant management platform Toast cut 50% of its staff. The Boston-based company was valued at $5 billion in recent months, and — before the pandemic hit — was planning to spend the next few years gearing up to go public. Toast sits uniquely between fintech and restaurant tech, industries that have been arguably impacted the most by COVID-19’s spread and widespread restaurant closures.

So many fintech eggs in so many baskets

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

The whole crew was present this week: NatashaDanny and Alex, along with our intrepid producer Chris. And like the last few episodes it was good to have everyone around as there was so very much to get through. Even better there was a lot of good, non-COVID-19 news to cover. Yes, there were bad tidings and some COVID-19 material as well, but, hey, not everything can be fun.

We started with a look at Clearbanc and its runway extension not-a-loan program, which may help startups survive that are running low on cash. Natasha covered it for TechCrunch. Most of us know about Clearbanc’s revenue-based financing model; this is a twist. But it’s good to see companies work to adapt their products to help other startups survive.

Next we chatted about a few rounds that Danny covered, namely Sila’s $7.7 million investment to help build technology that could take on the venerable and vulnerable ACH, and Cadence’s $4 million raise to help with securitization. Even better, per Danny, they are both blockchain-using companies. And they are useful! Blockchain, while you were looking elsewhere, has done some cool stuff at last.

Sticking to our fintech theme — the show wound up being super fintech-heavy, which was an accident — we turned to SoFi’s huge $1.2 billion deal to buy Galileo, a Utah-based payments company that helps power a big piece of UK-based fintech. SoFi is going into the B2B fintech world after first attacking the B2C realm; we reckon that if it can pull the move off, other financial technology companies might follow suit.

Tidying up all the fintech stories is this round up from Natasha and Alex, working to figure out who in fintech is doing poorly, who’s hiding for now, and who is crushing it in the new economic reality.

Next we touched on layoffs generally, layoffs at Toast, AngelList, and not LinkedIn — for now. Per their plans to not have plans to have layoffs. You figure that out.

And then at the end, we capped with good news from Thrive and Index. We didn’t get to Shippo, sadly. Next time!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 AM PT and Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

Startups, VCs in India request ‘relief package’ from the government to fight coronavirus disruption

More than six dozen startup founders, venture capitalists, and lobby groups in India have requested the government to grant them a “robust relief package” to help combat severe disruptions their businesses face due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In a joint letter to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, startups requested the government to bankroll 50% of their workforce’s salaries for six months, provide interest-free loans from banks, waive rent for three months, and offer tax benefits among other things.

“Unfortunately, our startup companies across the nation are inherently young, less resilient, and most vulnerable. Many of them face likely devastation during this extraordinary economic downturn. At this dire moment, Indian startups need a robust relief package from the government, lest all our collective efforts of the past few years are in vain,” they wrote in a joint letter to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last month.

Among those who have signed the letter include Mohit Bhatnagar, a managing director at Sequoia Capital, which is in advanced stages to close a fresh $1.3 billion fund for India and Southeast Asia, Gaurav Agarwal of online medicine store 1mg, Debjani Ghosh of industry body Nasscom, Karthik Reddy of Blume Ventures, Anand Lunia of India Quotient, Deepinder Goyal of Zomato, and Sriharsha Majety of Swiggy.

Some prominent startup founders and VCs including Vijay Shekhar Sharma of Paytm, and Ritesh Agarwal of Oyo, have also held a meeting with Piyush Goyal, the commerce minister in India, for a similar relief.

“We seek your urgent intervention to help ensure India’s startup ecosystem survives this crisis to emerge as a pillar of growth, employment and innovation to help drive India’s recovery. We need the startup ecosystem to survive in order to help the economy bounce back. We have enclosed herewith our submission for your kind consideration and we look forward to your support in this regard,” the joint letter reads.

The request for bailout comes amid a national lockdown in India that has disrupted countless businesses. New Delhi ordered a 21-day lockdown last month in a bid to curtail the spread of Covid-19.

Earlier this month, ten prominent VC and PE funds in India cautioned startups to brace for the “worst” months ahead.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they said.

As India, where the economy growth has been slowing for several quarters, scrambles to provide for its 1.3 billion citizens, the letter has drawn some criticism from industry figures.

“I can’t fathom how such a list gets made in a country of more than a billion people who are facing a crisis unlike any they’ve seen before. A significant majority of them daily wage earners who have no financial cushion or any idea where their next meal is going to come from. Let’s not even stray into health and the need for medical emergencies; just putting three square meals on the table a day is proving to be impossible for so many,” wrote Ashish K. Mishra in a column on The Morning Context.

“At this very moment, it is they who need the government’s support. Not fat cats with bloated, middling business models and venture capital funds whose begging bowls are now seemingly larger than their risk appetite,” he added.

Companies asking for a bailout is not limited to India. Oil giants have sought similar help from the U.S. President Donald Trump. But startups have largely been out of the picture. Brent Hoberman, chairman and co-founder of Founders Factory and Firstminute Capital, urged the UK government to provide some relief to startups last month. But the government has yet to do much about it, just ask Deliveroo, Graphcore and other big UK startups.

$75M weed giant Caliva ditches Eaze, launches delivery

It’s a brutal time for marijuana startups. I’m hearing some are raising at one-fifth of their 2019 valuation amid rampant competition, tall taxes and slow legalization. The struggles for marijuana’s best-known startup, delivery service Eaze, continue as today it’s losing one of its top partners: $75 million-funded weed brand empire Caliva has dropped Eaze in favor of launching its own delivery system.

By partnering with Hypur banking to solve the marijuana payments legality issue, Caliva will be able to accept contactless mobile payments, unlike Eaze, which usually requires customers to pay in cash. Caliva buyers won’t have to worry about trips to the ATM, especially now during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, which the startup expects will boost their average order volume. Combined with verticalizing delivery in-house, plus its retail and wholesale operations, Caliva hopes it can grow its margins and survive this long winter for weed startups.

“Our mission at Caliva has always been to provide safe and easy access to plant-based solutions for health, happiness and healing,” said Caliva CEO Dennis O’Malley. “Together with Hypur, we are proud to offer our customers safe, compliant and convenient cashless payment options to improve and modernize their purchasing experience.” It hasn’t been so easy for Eaze, though.

Back in January, we reported that Eaze was in trouble, having suffered unannounced layoffs and executive departures. It burned cash on billboards, and never launched the services of a startup it acquired. There were questions about data security, and weed brands dropped Eaze due to delayed payments. It was almost out of money and in danger of vaporizing. It luckily managed to secure a $15 million bridge round to keep it alive, plus a $20 million Series D in February just before COVID-19 hit the fan, though I dread to think of the terms of that funding.

The plan for Eaze was to verticalize, buying and developing brands that it could sell through its existing delivery service to up its margins. Now it’s seeing former partner Caliva do the reverse, launching a delivery service to sell its own Fun Uncle, Deli and Caliva brands, as well as distribute other vape, edible and flower brands like Dosist and Kiva. Its menu breadth to attract customers and in-house brands to drive profits could be a winning combo. After limited pilots in SoCal, Caliva delivery is launching in LA and the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, traditional payment processors usually refuse to work with marijuana companies for fear of legal repercussions. That’s why most delivery services can’t accept credit or debit cards, or do so through sketchy legal workarounds that have led payment providers to be sued. Others like CanPay only offer ACH transfers, while Square only works with CBD sellers. “We spent time researching and evaluating all platforms that accept cannabis payments in the U.S., and found that Hypur has the best security, compliance and consumer experience” O’Malley tells me.

Although 400-person Caliva is now trying to raise a Series B, it may experience tough headwinds with shelter-in-place orders in effect in states where marijuana is legal. Stiff taxes on marijuana have meanwhile helped the black market continue to thrive, as California’s $3.1 billion in legal 2019 sales were overshadowed by an estimated $8.7 billion in illegal sales. Faster delivery and simpler payments could help. But enthusiasm for the industry has dwindled following the initial flood of entrants sought to exploit the end of prohibition. Is the Green Rush over?

Seeqc raises $5M to help make quantum computing commercially viable

Seeqc, a startup that is part of a relatively new class of quantum computing companies that is looking at how to best use classical computing to manage quantum processors, today announced that it has raised $5 million from M Ventures, the strategic corporate venture capital arm of Merck, the German pharmaceutical giant. Merck will be a strategic partner for Seeqc and will help it to develop its R&D efforts to develop useful application-specific quantum computers.

With this, New York state-based Seeqc has now raised a total of $11 million, including a recent $6.8 million seed round that included BlueYard Capital, Cambium, NewLab and the Partnership Fund for New York City.

Since developing new pharmaceuticals is an obvious use case for quantum computing, it makes sense that large pharmaceutical companies are trying to get ahead of their competitors by making strategic investments in companies like Seeqc.

The company is a spin-out of Hypres, a company that specializes in building superconductor-integrated circuits. Hypres itself had raised about $100 million in total and notes that much of the work it did on building its solutions are now part of Seeqc.

As a company spokesperson told me, the idea behind Seeqc is to bring today’s room-sized quantum computers down to a more manageable scale. It’s doing so by combining its (and Hypres’) expertise in building superconductors with a hybrid approach to combine analog and digital. This includes digital qubit control and readout, together with the company’s own proprietary chip technology that integrates classical and quantum circuits into a hybrid system (and by default, quantum computers are hybrid systems that need a classical computer to control them).

The company argues that co-locating the classical compute with the quantum processor is critical to achieving the best performance. And since it owns and operates its own fab to build these chips, Seeqc also believes that it is one of the few companies that has the right infrastructure and expertise in place to design, test and build these superconductors.

“The ‘brute force’ or labware approach to quantum computing contemplates building machines with thousands or even millions of qubits requiring multiple analog cables and, in some cases, complex CMOS readout/control for each qubit, but that doesn’t scale effectively as the industry strives to deliver business-applicable solutions,” said John Levy, co-chief executive officer at Seeqc. “With Seeqc’s hybrid approach, we utilize the power of quantum computers in a digital system-on-a-chip environment, offering greater control, cost reduction and with a massive reduction in energy, introducing a more viable path to commercial scalability.”

The company believes that its approach can cut the cost of today’s large-scale quantum computers to 1/400th. All of this, of course, is still a while out and, for now, the company will use the new funding to build a small-scale version of its system.

“We’re excited to be working with a world-leading team and fab on one of the most pressing issues in modern quantum computing,” says Owen Lozman, vice president at M Ventures . “We recognize that scaling the current generations of superconducting quantum computers beyond the noisy intermediate-scale quantum era will require fundamental changes in qubit control and wiring. Building on deep expertise in single flux quantum technologies, Seeqc has a clear, and importantly cost-efficient, pathway towards addressing existing challenges and disrupting analog, microwave-controlled architectures.”

Seeqc is, of course, not the only startup working on more efficient quantum control schemes. Quantum Machines, for example, also recently raised quite a bit of venture capital for its hardware/software quantum orchestration platform that also includes a custom processor, though that company’s overall approach is quite different from Seeqc’s.

Quibi is the anti-TikTok (that’s a bad thing)

It takes either audacious self-confidence or reckless hubris to build a completely asocial video app in 2020. You can decide which best describes Quibi, Hollywood’s $1.75 billion-funded attempt at a mobile-only Netflix of six to 10-minute micro-TV show episodes. Quibi manages to miss every trend and tactic that could help make its app popular. The company seems to believe it can succeed on only its content (mediocre) and marketing dollars (fewer than it needs).

I appreciate that Quibi is doing something audaciously different than most startups. Rather than iterating toward product-market fit, it spent a fortune developing its slick app and buying fancy content in secret so it could launch with a bang.

Yet Quibi’s bold business strategy is muted by a misguided allegiance to the golden age of television before the internet permeated every entertainment medium. It’s unshareable, prescriptive, sluggish, cumbersome and unfriendly. Quibi’s unwillingness to borrow anything from social networks makes the app feel cold and isolated, like watching reality shows in the vacuum of space.

Quibi

In that sense, Quibi is the inverse of TikTok, which feels fiercely alive. TikTok is designed to immediately immerse you in crowd-vetted content that grabs your attention and inspires you to spread your take on it to friends. That’s why TikTok has almost 2 billion downloads to date, while Quibi picked up just 300,000 on the day of its big splash into market.

Here’s a breakdown of the major missteps by Quibi, why TikTok does it better and how this new streaming app can get with the times.

What Hollywood thinks we want

Quibi feels like some off-brand cable channel, with a mix of convoluted reality shows, scripted dramas and news briefs. Imagine MTV at noon in the mid-2000s. Nothing seemed must-see. There’s no Game of Thrones or Mandalorian here. While the production value is better than what you’ll find on YouTube, the show concepts feel slapdash with novelty that quickly fades.

Chrissy Teigen as a small claims court judge? The tear-jerking “Thanks A Million” does skillfully multiply the “OMG” gratitude moment from makeover programs to happen 4X per episode. But a cooking show where blindfolded chefs have to guess what food was just exploded in their faces…(sigh)

The catalog feels like the product of TV writers being told they have 10 seconds to come up with an idea. “What would those idiots watch?” The shows remind me of old VR games that are barely more than demos, or an app built in a garage without ever asking prospective users what they need. Co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg may have produced The Lion King and Shrek, but the app’s content feels like it was greenlit by, well, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s leader Meg Whitman, who indeed is Quibi’s CEO.

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Quibi CEO Meg Whitman

Despite being built for a touch-screen interface, there’s little Bandersnatch-style interactive content so far, nor are the creators doing anything special with the six to 10-minute format. The shows feel more like condensed TV programs with episodes ending when there would be a commercial break. There’s no onboarding process that could ask which popular TV shows or genres you’re into. As the catalog expands, that makes it less likely you’ll find something appealing within a few taps.

TikTok comes from the opposite direction. Instead of what Hollywood thinks we want, its content comes straight from its consumers. People record what they think would make them and their friends laugh, surprised or enticed. The result is that with low to zero production budget, random kids and influencers alike make things with millions of Likes. And as elder millennials, Gen Xers and beyond get hooked, they’re creating videos for their peers, as well. The algorithm monitors what you’re hovering over and rapidly adapts its recommendations to your style.

TikTok is fundamentally interactive. Each clip’s audio can be borrowed to produce remixes that personalize a meme for a different demographic or subculture. And because its stars are internet natives, they’re in constant communication with their fan base to tune content to what they want. There’s something for everyone. No niche is too small.

TikTok screenshots

The Fix: Quibi should take a hint from Brat TV, the Disney Channel for the YouTube generation that gives tween social media stars their own premium shows about being a grade school kid to create content with a built-in fan base. [Disclosure: My cousin Darren Lachtman is a Brat co-founder.)

Take the Chrissy’s Court model, and shift it to stars who are 20 years younger. Give TikTok phenoms like Charli D’Amelio or Chase Hudson Quibi shows and let them help conceptualize the content, and they’ll bring their legions of fans. Double-down on choose-your-own-adventures and fan voting game shows that leverage the phone’s interactivity. Fund creators that will differentiate Quibi by making it look like anything other than daytime TV. And ask users directly what they want to see right when they download the app.

No screenshots

This is frankly insane. Screenshots of Quibi appear as a blank black screen. That means no memes. If people can’t turn Quibi scenes into jokes they’ll share elsewhere, its shows won’t ever become fixtures of the cultural zeitgeist like Netflix’s Tiger King has. Yes, other mobile streaming apps like Netflix and Disney+ also block screenshots, but they have web versions where you can snap and share what you want. Quibi never should have structured its deals to license content from producers in a way that prevented any way to riff on or even let friends preview its content.

TikTok, on the other hand, defaults to letting you download any video and share it wherever you please — with the app’s watermark attached. That’s fueled TikTok’s stellar growth as clips get posted to Twitter and Instagram — and drive viewers back to the app. It has spawned TikTok compilations on YouTube, and a whole culture of remixing that expands and prolongs the popularity of trending jokes and dances.

The Fix: Quibi should allow screenshots. There’s little risk of spoilers or piracy. If its deals prohibit that, then it should offer pre-approved screenshots and video clips/trailers of each episode that you can download and share. Think of it like an in-app press kit. Even if we’re not allowed to set up the perfect screenshot for making a meme, at least then we could coherently discuss the shows on other social networks.

Sluggish pacing

On mobile, you’re always just a swipe away from something more interesting. It’s like if you watched TV with your finger permanently hovering over the change channel button. Ever noticed how movie trailers now often start with a fast-forward collage of their most eye-catching scenes? Quibi seems intent on communicating prestige with its slow-building dramas like The Most Dangerous Game and Survive, which both had me bored and fast-forwarding. And that’s watching Quibi at home on the couch. While on the go, where it was designed to be consumed, slow pacing could push users with a minute or two to spare to open Instagram or TikTok instead.

None of this is helped by Quibi not auto-playing a trailer or the first episode the moment you scroll past a show on the home screen. Instead, you see a static title card for two seconds before it starts playing you an excerpt of the program. That makes it more cumbersome to discover new shows.

Where TikTok wins is in immediacy. Creators know users will swipe right past their video if it’s not immediately entertaining or obviously revving up to a big reveal. They grab you in the first second with smiles, costumes, bold captions or crazy situations. That also makes it easy for viewers to dismiss what’s irrelevant to them and teach the TikTok algorithm what they really want. Plus, you know that you can score a dopamine hit of joy even if you only have 30 seconds. TikTok makes Quick Bites feel like an understaffed sit-down restaurant.

The Fix: Quibi needs to teach creators to hook viewers instantly by previewing why they should want to watch. Since tapping a show’s card on the Quibi homepage instantly plays it, those teasers need to be built into the first episode. Otherwise, Quibi needs a button to view a trailer from its buried dedicated show pages to the preview card most people interact with on the home screen. Otherwise, users may never discover what Quibi shows resonate with them and teach it which to show and make more of.

Anti-social video club

Quibi neglects all its second-screen potential. No screenshotting makes it tough to discuss shows elsewhere, yet there’s no built-in comments or messaging to discuss or spread them in-app. Pasting an episode link into Twitter doesn’t even display the show’s name in the preview box. Nor do shows have their own social accounts to follow to remind you to keep watching.

There’s no way for friends to follow what you’re watching or see your recommendations. No leaderboards of top shows. Certainly no time-stamped, live-stream style crowd annotations. No synced-up co-watching with friends, despite a lack of TV apps preventing you from watching with anyone else in person unless you crowd around one phone.

It all feels like Quibi figured advertising would be enough. It could run contests where winners get a Cameo-esque message or chat with their favorite stars. Quibi could let you share scenes with your face swapped onto actors’ heads, deepfake-style like Snapchat’s (confusingly named) Cameos feature. It could host in-app roundtables with the casts where users could submit questions. It’s like if Web 2.0 never happened.

TikTok, meanwhile, harnesses every conceivable social feature. Follow, Like, comment, message, go Live, duet, remix or download and share any video. It beckons viewers to participate in trending challenges. And even when users aren’t itching to return to TikTok, notifications from these social features will drag them back in, or watermarked clips will follow them to other networks. Every part of the app is designed to make its content the center of popular culture.

The Fix: Quibi needs to understand that just because we’re watching on mobile, doesn’t make video a solo experience. At first, it should add social content discovery options so you can see which friends opt in to share that they’re watching or view a leaderboard of the top programs. Shows, especially ones dripping out new episodes, are more fun when you have someone to chat about them with.

Eventually, Quibi should layer on in-app second-screen features. Create a way to share comments at the end of each episode that people read during the credits so they feel like they’re in a viewing community.

Can Quibi be more?

What’s most disappointing about Quibi is that it has the potential to be something fresh, merging classically produced premium content with the modern ways we use our phones. Yet beyond shows being shot in two widths so you can switch between watching in landscape or portrait mode at any time, it really is just a random cable channel shrunk down.

Youths act in front of a mobile phone camera while making a TikTok video on the terrace of their residence in Hyderabad on February 14, 2020 (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP) (Photo by NOAH SEELAM/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the few redeeming opportunities for Quibi is using the daily episode release schedule to serialize content that benefits from suspense, as Ryan Vinnicombe aka InternetRyan notes. Bingeing via traditional streaming services can burn through thrillers before they can properly build up suspense and fan theories or let late-comers catch up while a show is still in the zeitgeist. Cliffhangers with just a day instead of a week to wait could be Quibi’s killer feature.

Suspense is also one thing TikTok fails at. Within a single video, they’re actually often all about suspense, waiting through build up for a gag or non-sequitur to play out. But creators try to rope in followers by making a multi-minute video and splitting it into parts so people subscribe to them to see the next part. Yet since TikTok doesn’t always show timestamps and surfaces old videos on its home screen, it can often be a chore to find the Part Two, and there’s no good way for creators to link them together. TikTok could stand to learn about multi-episode content from Quibi.

But today, Quibi feels like a minitiaturized and degraded version of what we already get for free on the web or pay for with Netflix. Quibi charging $4.99 per month with ads or $7.99 without seems like a steep ask without delivering any truly must-see shows, novel interactive experience or memory-making social moments.

Quibi’s success may simply be a test of how bad people are at cancelling 90-day free trials (hint: they’re bad at it!). The bull case is that absentminded subscribers among the 300,000 first-day downloads and some diehard fans of the celebs it’s given shows will bring Quibi enough traction to raise more cash and survive long enough to socialize its product and teach creators to exploit the format’s opportunities.

But the bear case is already emerging in Quibi’s rapidly declining App Store rank, which fell from No. 4 overall when it launched Monday to No. 21 yesterday after just 830,000 total downloads according to Sensor Tower. Lackluster content and no virality means it might never become the talk of the town, leading top content producers to slink away or half-ass their contributions, leaving us to dine on short video elsewhere.

With $23 million for its plant-based, liquid meals, Kate Farms pushes into consumer and healthcare

Kate Farms, the supplier of a plant-based liquid meal formula used by hospitals and healthcare providers around the country as a nutritional supplement for patients who cannot process solid foods, has raised $23 million in a round of funding.

The new money will allow the company to ramp up its production as it looks to meet significant new demand from both consumers and healthcare providers, according to chairman and chief executive, Brett Matthews.

Founded by Richard and Michelle Laver, who initially developed the formula for their daughter, Kate, a child whose cerebral palsy meant that she couldn’t eat solid foods or process the tube-feeding formulas available on the market, Kate Farms has grown into a business that serves hospitals around the country.

Matthews, whose son suffered from upper respiratory and autoimmune issues, was first introduced to the company as a customer. “My son was very sick… and food was really critical to his healing. I knew a lot about the products and food as medicine and really jumped in and invested.”

From that initial investment, Matthews’ responsibilities with the company expanded, first as chairman of the Kate Farms board and then, eventually, stepping in to become chief executive of the company.

Throughout its history Kate Farms has raised capital from individual, rather than institutional, investors, and the new financing is no different. Capital came from a slew of heavyweight investors, including: David Roux, the co-founder of Silver Lake; John Hammergren, former chairman and chief executive of McKesson; Gregg Engles, former chairman and chief executive of the plant-based dairy replacement company, WhiteWave Foods; and William and Kristin Loomis, the former chief executive of Lazard and the founder and executive director of HHV-6 Foundation, respectively.

That clutch of high-powered founders and executives joins backers including Pete Nicholas, the founder and former chief executive of Boston Scientific; Robert Zollars, the former President of Baxter International, chairman of Diamond Foods and EVP of Cardinal Health; and Celeste Clark, the former executive team management member at Kellogg’s Global Nutrition.

The money, which closed late last year, is being used to ramp production as the company races to meet increasing demand caused by the COVID-19 epidemic and the government’s response. Kate Farms is donating $1 million worth of meals to Meals on Wheels programs across Southern California. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based company said that would equate to roughly 225,000 meals for people who need it.

The company’s plant-based, non-GMO meal replacements have been clinically proven to improve nutrition among children and adults who need tube-fed meals. One study was published in the journal of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition based on clinical trials conducted with Atlanta Gastroenterology Associates, according to Matthews.

We can improve weight gain in the pediatric market,” Matthews said. “And we can improve tolerance.”

The market for medical conditions that require tube feeding numbers around 700,000 in the U.S., with another 150 million people who could use the company’s products for less severe nutritional issues, Matthews said. It’s a roughly $3 billion market in the U.S., and $10 billion globally.

But Kate Farms has its eyes on a much bigger prize. As the company noted in a statement, the consumer market for plant-based dairy replacements was $21 billion in 2017 and is expected to top $37.5 billion by 2024. And over the next decade, meat alternatives are expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $85 billion by 2030, according to UBS Investments

“Our focus right now is on the medical side of it, but you could see where this could evolve,” said Matthews. 

Esports One launches its fantasy esports platform

Esports One is a startup betting that there’s a big opportunity in bringing a fantasy sports approach to the world of esports — particularly at a time when traditional pro sports are on pause.

Co-founder and COO Sharon Winter told me that the company’s platform, which is leaving beta testing today, is the first “all-in-one fantasy platform” for esports. In other words, it’s not just a site where you can create a fantasy team to compete with others, but also a place where you can research players, read articles about the latest news and watch live games.

And while Esports One is starting out by supporting the LCS (North American) and LEC (European) regions for League of Legends, the goal is to support a wide range of esports titles.

Co-founder and CEO Matt Gunnin said that when he started Esports One in 2017, the goal was to create “the first and only esports fantasy destination.” And while today’s launch is in many ways the realization of that vision, Esports One has been launching other data and analytics products in the meantime, becoming a data partner for both Acer’s Planet 9 esports platform and League of Legends publisher Riot Games.

Backed by Eniac Ventures and Xseed Capital,, the company was also part of the first class of startups to participate in the MIT Play Labs accelerator, and it says it uses computer vision technology developed at MIT and Caltech.

Why does an esports startup need that level of tech? Gunnin compared it to watching pro football on TV, where you can see a virtual yellow line indicating how far a team needs to advance to achieve first down.

“Imagine trying to watch a football game if there isn’t that yellow first-down line,” he said. “What we’ve been trying to build from the early days is the technology to be that first-down line for esports.”

Esports One screenshot

Image Credits: Esports One

More specifically, Gunnin and Winter explained that their computer vision capabilities allow Esports One to track the activity in a game without having to rely on a game publisher’s company’s API — though Gunnin added that when an API is available, they’re happy to use it as “a central source of truth” to start training the company’s algorithms.

Gunnin added that the plan is to keep the basic Esports One platform free, then add premium subscription features over the summer.

“There could be various ways for users to get more insights, more analytics, more research tools, more ways to engage with one another,” he said. “We’re not going into gambling … Users don’t have to buy an advantage when they’re playing against anyone else, [we don’t want users to have an advantage] because they’re paying for monthly subscription access to stats. But we could take some of those stats and make it available in chart form, make it exportable.”

The company said that while in beta, the platform has already pulled in 30,000 active participants — and that’s without advertising spend.

And Gannin and Winter suggested that there’s an even bigger opportunity to expand the esports audience right now, as traditional fans have nothing to watch and even pro basketball players are turning to video games to compete.

“As people have been staying at home… we’re seeing DMs to our social media accounts from people diving into esports, signing up for Discord accounts,” Winter said. “We’ve ramped up the support to educate the community and expand the esports audience. It’s quickly surpassing mainstream, traditional sports.”