How contrarian hires and a pitch deck started Nubank’s $30 billion fintech empire

For most startups, the hardest early challenge is identifying a market and a product to serve it. That wasn’t the case for Nubank CEO David Velez, who understood the massive potential for success if he could break into Latin America’s most valuable economy with even a moderately modern banking offering.

Instead, the challenge was how to rebuild the concept of a bank in a country where banking is widely hated, all while the incumbents heavily entrenched with the state worked to block every move.

Nubank knew its market and geography, and through tenacious fundraising, inventive marketing and product development, and a series of contrarian hires, Velez and his team stripped bare the morass of Brazilian banking to build one of the world’s great fintech companies.

The challenge was how to rebuild the concept of a bank in a country where banking is widely hated, all while the incumbents heavily entrenched with the state worked to block every move.

In the first part of this EC-1, I’ll look at how Velez brought his skills and experience to bear on this market, how Nubank was founded in 2013, and how the team brought a Californian rather than Brazilian vibe to their first office on — no joke — California Street, in a neighborhood called Brooklin in the city of São Paulo.

The makings of an entrepreneur

The idea of being his own boss was ingrained in Velez from his earliest days in Colombia, where he grew up in an entrepreneurial family, with a father who owned a button factory. “I heard from my dad over and over again that you need to start your own company,” Velez said.

But years would pass and Velez still had no idea what he wanted to do. To “kill time,” and also to surround himself with entrepreneurial energy, Velez attended Stanford University — partially financed by the sale of some livestock — and then worked as an analyst at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley before switching to venture capital at General Atlantic and Sequoia.

Fintech all-star Nubank raises a $750M mega round

In 2013, Colombian businessman David Velez decided to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. He didn’t speak Portuguese, nor was he an engineer or a banker, but he did have the conviction that the system was broken and that he could fix it. And as a former Sequoia VC, he also had access to capital.

His gut instinct and market analysis were right. Today, Nubank announced a $750 million extension to its Series G (which rang in at $400 million this past January), bringing the round to a total of $1.15 billion and their valuation to $30 billion — $5 billion more than when we covered them in January.

The extension funding was led by Berkshire Hathaway, which put in $500 million, and a number of other investors.

Velez and his team decided now was a good time to raise again, because, “We saw a great opportunity in terms of growth rate and we’re very tiny when compared to the incumbents,” he told TechCrunch.”

Nubank is the biggest digital bank in the world by number of customers: 40 million. The company started as a tech company in Brazil that offered only a fee-free credit card with a line of credit of R$50 (about USD$10). 

It now offers a variety of financial products, including a digital bank account, a debit card, insurance, P2P payment via Pix (the Brazilian equivalent of Zelle), loans, rewards, life insurance and an account and credit card for small business owners. 

Nubank serves unbanked or underserviced citizens in Brazil — about 30% of the population — and this approach can be extremely profitable because there are many more clients available.

The banking system in Brazil is one of the few bureaucracies in the country that is actually quite skillful, but the customer service remains unbearable, and banks charge exorbitant fees for any little transaction. 

Traditionally, the banking industry has been dominated by five major traditional banks: Itaú Unibanco, Banco do Brasil, Bradesco, Santander and Caixa Economica Federal. 

While Brazil remains Nubank’s primary market, the company also offers services in Colombia and Mexico (services launched in Mexico in 2018). The company still only offers the credit card in both countries.

“The momentum we’re seeing in Mexico is terrific. Our Mexican credit card net promoter score (NPS) is 93, which is the highest we’ve had in Nubank history. In Brazil the highest we’ve had was 88,” Velez said.

The company has been on a hiring spree in the last few months, and brought on two heavyweight executives. Matt Swann replaced Ed Wible (the original CTO and co-founder). Wible continues to be an important player in the company, but more in a software developer capacity. Swann previously served as CTO at Bookings.com and StubHub, and as CIO of the Global Consumer Bank at Citi, so he brings years of experience of scaling tech businesses, which is what Nubank is focused on now, though Velez wouldn’t confirm which countries are next.

The other major hire, Arturo Nunez, fills the new role of chief marketing officer. Nunez was head of marketing for Apple Latin America, amongst other roles with Nike and the NBA. 

It may sound a little odd for a tech company not to have had a head of marketing, but Nubank takes pride in having a $0 cost of acquisition (CAC). Instead of spending money on marketing, they spend it on customer service and then rely on word of mouth to get the word out.

Since we last spoke with Velez in January regarding the $400 million Series G, the company went from having 34 million customers to now having 40 million in a span of roughly 6 months. The funds will be used to grow the business, including hiring more people.

“We’ve seen the entire market go digital, especially people who never thought they would,” Velez said. “There is really now an avalanche of all backgrounds [of people] who are getting into digital banking.”

Kushki, an Ecuador-based fintech, raises $86M to build financial infrastructure in Latam

Just about every week there’s a blockbuster round coming out of South America, but in certain countries such as Ecuador, things have been more hush hush. However, Kushki, a Quito-based fintech, is bringing attention to the region with today’s announcement of a $86 million Series B and a $600 million valuation.

“We never thought that we would return home [from the U.S.] and build a company that was more valuable in Ecuador than we had built in the U.S.,” said Aron Schwarzkopf, CEO and co-founder of Kushki.

Schwarzkopf and his business partner, Sebastián Castro, had previously built and sold a fintech called Leaf in the U.S. in 2014. The two are originally from Ecuador but moved to Boston for college, where they met watching soccer.

Unlike many other fintechs in Latam that are out to help the unbanked, Kushki works behind the scenes building the tech infrastructure that companies like Nubank use to transfer money. Some of the functionalities they build enable both local and cross-border payment players in credit and debit cards, bank transfers, digital cash, mobile wallets, and other alternative payment methods.

“We realized there was a gigantic opportunity to democratize and create infrastructure to move money,” Schwarzkopf told TechCrunch.

The company, which was founded in 2017, already has operations in Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. The Series B will be used to accelerate growth and expand to Brazil and nine other markets in Central America.

Generally, expanding to Brazil is an expensive proposition, and therefore not a path that all companies can take, even though it can be an extremely profitable move if done right. Some of the challenges include the need to translate everything into Portuguese followed by the varying financial regulations.

That’s why Kushki’s approach has to be somewhat custom in each country.

“We focus on going into the markets and we basically rebuild an entire infrastructure, so we put everything into one API,” said Schwarzkopf.

Products similar to Kushki have been successful in other regions around the world, such as in India with Pine Labs, Africa with Flutterwave, and Checkout.com that now has 15 international offices.

To build all this infrastructure, Kushki, which means “cash” in a native Andes dialect, has raised a total of $100 million from SoftBank, an undisclosed global growth equity firm, as well as previous investors including DILA Capital, Kaszek Ventures, Clocktower Ventures, and Magma Partners.

“From now until 2060, people will need servers and ways to move money, and we knew that the existing payment infrastructure couldn’t support that,” said Schwarzkopf.

Telemedicine startups are positioning themselves for a post-pandemic world

Telemedicine, in its original form of the phone call, has been around for decades. For people in remote or rural areas without easy access to in-person care, consulting a doctor over the phone has often been the go-to approach. But for a large swath of the world used to taking half a day off work just for a 15-30 minute doctor’s appointment, it may seem like telemedicine was invented only last year. That’s mostly because it wasn’t until 2020 that telemedicine, in its myriad forms, debuted into the mainstream consciousness.

It’s impossible to predict how healthcare institutions will operate post-pandemic, but with so many people now accustomed to telemedicine, startups that provide services around virtual care continue to be poised for success.

Telemedicine has faced an uphill battle to become more relevant in the U.S., with challenges such as meeting HIPPA compliance requirements and insurance companies unwilling to pay for virtual visits. But when COVID-19 began raging across the globe and people had to stay home, both the insurance and healthcare industries were forced to adapt.

“It’s been said that there are decades where nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen,” said StartUp Health co-founders Steven Krein and Unity Stoakes in the company’s 2020 year-end report. That statement couldn’t be truer for telemedicine: Around $3.1 billion in funding flowed into the sector in 2020 — about three times what we saw in 2019, according to the report. A health tech fund and insights company, StartUp Health counts Alphabet, Sequoia and Andreessen Horowitz as some of its co-investors.

Now that people see the benefits and conveniences of “dialing a doc” from the kitchen table, healthcare has changed forever. It’s impossible to predict how healthcare institutions will operate post-pandemic, but with so many people now accustomed to telemedicine, startups that provide services around virtual care continue to be poised for success.

The state of telemedicine

Major players in the field now look at the state of healthcare as, “before COVID and after COVID,” Stoakes told Extra Crunch. “In the post-pandemic world, there’s a significant transformation that’s occurred,” he said. “It’s all accelerated; the customers have shown up. There’s more capital than ever and consumers and physicians have adapted quickly,” he added.

In the U.S., healthcare is first and foremost a business, so while there are treatment approaches that have long been proven to improve patient outcomes, if they didn’t make sense financially, they weren’t instituted at scale. Telemedicine is a great example of this.

A 2017 study by the American Journal of Accountable Care showed that telemedicine can be quite useful for managing healthcare. “The use of telemedicine has been shown to allow for better long-term care management and patient satisfaction; it also offers a new means to locate health information and communicate with practitioners (e.g., via e-mail and interactive chats or video conferences), thereby increasing convenience for the patient and reducing the amount of potential travel required for both physician and patient,” the study reads.

But as we’ve seen, it took a global healthcare emergency to drive widespread adoption of virtual healthcare in the U.S. Now that investors recognize the potential, they are increasingly pouring money into startups that promise to take telemedicine to the next level. Some of the investors backing these newer companies include StartUp Health, Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia, Alphabet, Kaiser Permanente Ventures, U.S. Venture Partners, Maveron, First Round Capital, DreamIt Ventures, Human Ventures and Tusk Venture Partners.

Upstream, a Miami-based professional networking platform, raises a $2.75M seed round

If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you have a LinkedIn profile with your digital resume and hundreds — if not thousands — of professional connections. But how many of those people do you actually know well, and, more importantly, do you ever connect with them and meet others from their networks?

“You don’t go to LinkedIn to meet people. You don’t hang out and spend meaningful time there,” said Alex Taub, co-founder and CEO of Upstream, a new professional networking platform that just closed a $2.75 million seed round, bringing their total raised to $3.25 million. The round was led by Ibex Investors and managing partner Nicole Priel (who joins the board) and includes participation by 8-Bit Capital, Human Ventures, NYVP, Converge Venture Partners and a number of angel investors.

“Your LinkedIn network is not a good representation of who you actually know and how well you know them. We see these places that LinkedIn isn’t particularly focused [on] and believe there are opportunities for multiple big companies to better serve the needs of professionals,” Taub added.

Unlike LinkedIn, Upstream focuses on generating meaningful connections between its members, and one way they go about it is by hosting digital events that start with a speaker, followed by breakout matched sessions that are five minutes each.

To get a sense of the product, Upstream invited me to be the speaker at last Friday’s “Upstream Social,” where I talked about my work as a journalist and then coincidently got matched with two founders — one in Brazil and the other in Boston. The week before, the guest speaker was U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey.

To me, the experience felt like LinkedIn meets Clubhouse meets Hoppin.

Upstream, which is pre-revenue and is Miami-based, is a company whose founder was attracted to the Sunshine State from NYC during the pandemic. Taub and his family signed a two-year lease here and plan to reevaluate their residence in the summer of 2022; they are one of the movers who are cautiously optimistic about the tech industry’s recent explosion in the Magic City.

The origin story

Taub and his co-founder, Michael Schonfeld, are both serial entrepreneurs, having built and sold Social Rank for an undisclosed amount before launching Upstream in October 2020. The impetus for the company came as a solution to a struggle Taub faced in his daily life.

“Throughout my life, regardless of the job I’ve been in, I spend my time making introductions, connecting people and helping friends hire rock-star talent. Like many people, I get energy from helping others,” Taub said. “When COVID-19 hit and the job market took a dive last March, the number of requests for help I received increased 100X. I noticed quickly that my speed of responding to emails and brain capacity to connect the dots became the limiting factor in getting people help,” he added.

So it’s no surprise that Upstream started as a product where people could ask for help, and others from the community pitched in. The company now has more than 200 communities (similar to LinkedIn groups), and about 75% of the people who attend an initial Upstream event return for a second one.

“I joke that we are building a product that people need because I need it. We feel that we are the right team to solve this problem because we so desperately want it ourselves,” Taub said.

Fresh out of YC, Houm raises $8M to improve the home rental and sales market in LatAm

As a longtime real estate developer based in Chile, Benjamin Labra was able to spot gaps in the buying and renting markets in Latin America. To meet demands, he started Houm, an all-in-one platform that helps homeowners rent and sell their properties in the region.

Fresh out of Y Combinator’s W21 cohort, today Houm announced an $8 million seed round. 

If you think the concept sounds like Brazil’s unicorn, QuintoAndar, it’s because Houm is very similar. While QuintoAndar dominates the Brazilian market, Houm operates in Chile, Mexico and Colombia, and aims to capture the rest of Spanish-speaking LatAm.

Think of Houm as a homeowner-run Zillow meets TaskRabbit. The company offers a marketplace run by the property owners themselves and cuts out the realtor by employing 200 freelancers who prepare the property for sale or to manage it.

Houmers, as they are called, go to the owner’s home, take photos and then help possible buyers or renters view the property. For their work, Houmers are compensated each time a home they worked on sells or gets rented.

However, Houm’s selling proposition isn’t just the ease of use it provides; instead, it also serves as a guarantor in my ways, making the buying process more accessible.

“In Colombia and Mexico, for someone to be your guarantor, they have to have a property that’s free of mortgage so it can be used as collateral,” Labra told TechCrunch.

On the flip side, the company also guarantees that renters will get paid every month, and if a tenant falters, Houm covers the cost. “You really have nothing to lose if you use Houm,” Labra said.

You can imagine that a company like Houm now has all sorts of data on the real estate market, especially around sales and rental prices. As a result, Houm uses this data in an algorithm that helps the homeowner determine a fair price for their property, but the listed price remains up to the owner.

The company, which was founded in 2018 and is based in Chile, now has about 200 full-time employees, in addition to their freelance team. While Labra declined to say how many active users it has, he said Houm is now showing a property every eight minutes.

The current funding round had no lead investor but includes Y Combinator, Goodwater Ventures, OneVC, Vast VC, Liquid2 and Myelin. The company plans to use the money to expand within the region, perfect its algorithm and generally speed up growth.

 

alt.bank, Brazil’s latest fintech targeting the unbanked, raises $5.5M

It looks like everyone and their mother is trying to reinvent the Brazilian banking system. Earlier this year we wrote about Nubank’s $400 million Series G, last month there was the PicPay IPO filing and today, alt.bank, a Brazilian neobank, announced a $5.5 million Series A led by Union Square Ventures (USV).

It’s no secret that the Brazilian banking system has been poised for disruption, considering the sector’s little attention to customer service and exorbitant fee structure that’s left most Brazilians unbanked, and alt.bank is just the latest company trying to take home a piece of the pie.

Following Nubank’s strategy of launching a bank with colors that are very un-bank-like, signaling that they do things differently, alt.bank similarly launched its first financial product in 2019 — a fluorescent-yellow debit card which the locals have endearingly dubbed, “o amarelinho,” meaning, “the little yellow card.”

The company, founded by serial entrepreneur Brad Liebman, follows the founder’s $480 million exit of Simply Business, which was acquired by U.S. insurance giant Travelers in 2017.

Unlike many fintechs, alt.bank has a strong social mission and pays commissions for referrals that last for the customer’s lifetime. 

“Most fintechs just help wealthy people get wealthier, so I thought let’s do something with a social mission,” Liebman told TechCrunch in an interview.

To drive home the mission, and really target the unbanked, Liebman and his team of 80 employees have designed an app that can be used by the illiterate. Instead of words, users can follow color-coded prompts to complete a transaction. The company also plans to launch credit products soon.

According to the company, close to a million people have downloaded the android app since launch, but Liebman declined to disclose how many active users the company actually has.

Today, the company’s core offerings include the debit card, a prepaid credit card, Pix (similar to Zelle), a savings account and even telemedicine visits via a partnership with Dr. Consulta, a network of healthcare clinics throughout the country. The prepaid credit card is key because online stores in Brazil don’t accept debit card purchases.

In addition to the perk of ongoing commissions, alt.bank has also partnered with three major drugstores, allowing their users to get 5-30% off any item at the stores, including medication.

While the company is based in São Paulo and São Carlos, Liebman and his family are currently based in London due to regulations around the pandemic.

The investment in alt.bank marks USV’s first investment in South America, solidifying a trend by other major U.S. investors such as Sequoia who only in the last several years have started looking to LatAm for deals.

“The bar was high for our first investment in South America,” said Union Square Ventures partner John Buttrick. “The combination of the alt.bank business model and world-class management team enticed us to expand our geographic focus to help build the leading digital bank targeting the 100 million Brazilians who are currently being neglected by traditional lenders,” he added in a statement. 

 

PicPay, the Brazilian mobile payments platform, files for an IPO on Nasdaq

Brazilian mobile payments app PicPay filed on Wednesday an F-1 with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for an IPO valued at up to $100 million. The company plans to list on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol PICS.

PicPay operates largely as a financial services platform that includes a credit card, a digital wallet similar to that of Apple Pay, a Venmo-style P2P payments element, e-commerce and social networking features.

“We want to transform the way people and companies interact, make transactions, and communicate in an intelligent, connected, and simple experience,” said José Antonio Batista, CEO of PicPay, in a statement.

While the company is based in São Paulo now and operates across Brazil, PicPay originally launched in Vitoria in 2012, a coastal city north of Rio. In 2015 the company was acquired by the group J&F Investimentos SA, a holding company owned by Brazilian billionaire brothers Wesley and Joesley Batista, which also own the gigantic meatpacker JBS SA.

According to the company’s registration statement, J&F was involved in the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history, known as The Car Wash, and in 2017 entered into a plea deal with the Brazilian Federal Prosecutor. In December 2020 the company agreed to pay a fine of $1.5 billion and contribute an extra $442.6 million to social projects in Brazil. That being said, J&F continues to be a powerful conglomerate in the country, positioning itself as a strong backer for PicPay.

2020 was an explosive year for PicPay as the company saw its active userbase grow from 28.4 million to 36 million as of March 2021. According to the company’s 2020 financial report, which PicPay shared with TechCrunch, the company’s revenues also grew drastically from $15.5 million in 2019, to $71 million in 2020. The company is not yet profitable, however, and PicPay shelled out $146 million in 2020 to fuel its growth.

“We believe that the growth of our base and user engagement in our ecosystem demonstrates the scalability of our business model and reveals a great opportunity to generate more value for these customers,” Batista added.

Fintech is one of the most popular sectors in Brazil today, because there’s a lot of room for improvement in the region. The country has traditionally been controlled by four major banks, which have been slow to adapt to technology and also charge very high fees.

PicPay’s IPO is being led by Banco Bradesco BBI, Banco BTG Pactual, Santander Investment Securities Inc., and Barclays Capital Inc. 

*The Brazilian Real was valued at 5.50 to $1 USD on the date of publication.

1Doc3, a Colombian telemedicine startup, raises $3 million

The pandemic has made telemedicine video visits in the U.S. almost commonplace, but in Latin America, where broadband isn’t widely available, 1Doc3 is using text and chat to provide access to care. Today, the Colombia-based company announced a $3 million pre-Series A led by MatterScale Ventures and Kayyak Ventures.

“I’m on a nice MacBook for this interview, but that’s not the case of most people in LatAm,” said Javier Cardona, co-founder and CEO of 1Doc3. The company’s name is a play on the phonetics of 1, 2, 3 in Spanish.

Reaching your primary care doctor when you’re not feeling well is getting harder and harder, and 1Doc3 aims to solve that problem in LatAm by offering a telemedicine platform powered by AI that does symptom assessment, triage and pre-diagnosis before connecting the patient to a doctor.

“In 97% of our consultations, you’re connected to a doctor in a matter of minutes,” Cardona said.

After seeing the doctor, the patient can also get their prescriptions delivered to their home through 1Doc3. The startup, like others in the space, is trying to close the loop so patients can get care quickly without having to leave their homes.

In addition to Colombia, the company already has operations in Mexico and plans to use part of the funding to expand further in the region as well as building out a marketing and sales team, which it hasn’t had thus far. 

1Doc3 reaches customers directly and by establishing corporate partnerships where the companies themselves pay for their employees’ medical care through the startup. One of Cardona’s goals is to bring the unit economics down so that smaller businesses can also afford 1Doc3, which for corporates, now charges between $3-4 a month/employee.

“For big companies, the money isn’t an issue, but our region is comprised of small to medium-sized businesses,” Cardona said.

The company, which was founded in 2013 and was a finalist in TechCrunch’s Latin American Battlefield in 2018, experienced massive growth in 2020, going from 2,500 to 35,000 consultations per month from February to December 2020, respectively, which led the company to be cashflow positive last year. In March of 2021, the company had $120,000 in MRR.

Like many startups, the jolt to found 1Doc3 came from a personal experience faced by the founder.  

“When I was in Tanzania I had a medical need and I was definitely not going to go to a doctor in Tanzania, and I couldn’t reach any doctor online, not even in the U.S., and I became a little obsessed with this problem,” said Cardona, who was working in the Middle East and Africa at the time. 

This round brings the total raised by 1Doc3 to $5 million. Other investors that participated in the round include Swanhill Capital, Simma Capital and existing investors The Venture City, EWA capital (previously Mountain Nazca Colombia) and Startup Health.

Medtronic partners with cybersecurity startup Sternum to protect its pacemakers from hackers

If you think cyberattacks are scary, what if those attacks were directed at your cardiac pacemaker? Medtronic, a medical device company, has been in hot water over the last couple of years because its pacemakers were getting hacked through their internet-based software updating systems. But in a new partnership with Sternum, an IoT cybersecurity startup based in Israel, Medtronic has focused on resolving the issue.

The problem was not with the medical devices themselves, but with the remote systems used to update the devices. Medtronic’s previous solution was to disconnect the devices from the internet, which in and of itself can cause other issues to arise.

“Medtronic was looking for a long-term solution that can help them with future developments,” said Natali Tshuva, Sternum’s founder and CEO. The company has already secured about 100,000 Medtronic devices.

Sternum’s solution allows medical devices to protect themselves in real-time. 

“There’s this endless race against vulnerability, so when a company discovers a vulnerability, they need to issue an update, but updating can be very difficult in the medical space, and until the update happens, the devices are vulnerable,” Tshuva told TechCrunch. “Therefore, we created an autonomous security that operates from within the device that can protect it without the need to update and patch vulnerabilities,” 

However, it is easier to protect new devices than to go back and protect legacy devices. Over the years hackers have gotten more and more sophisticated, so medical device companies have had to figure out how to protect the devices that are already out there.  

 “The market already has millions — perhaps billions — of medical devices connected, and that could be a security and management nightmare,” Tshuva added.

In addition to potentially doing harm to an individual, hackers have been taking advantage of device vulnerability as the gateway of choice into a hospital’s network, possibly causing a breach that can affect many more people. Tshuva explained that hospital networks are secured from the inside out, but devices that connect to the networks but are not protected can create a way in.

In fact, health systems have been known to experience the most data breaches out of any sector, accounting for 79% of all reported breaches in 2020. And in the first 10 months of last year, we saw a 45% increase in cyberattacks on health systems, according to data by Health IT Security.

In addition to Sternum’s partnership with Medtronic, the company also launched this week an IoT platform that allows, “devices to protect themselves, even when they are not connected to the internet,” Tshuva said.

Sternum, which raised about $10 million to date, also offers cybersecurity for IoT devices outside of healthcare, and according to Tshuva, the company focuses on areas that are “mission-critical.” Examples include railroad infrastructure sensors and management systems, and power grids.

Tshuva, who grew up in Israel, holds a master’s in computer science and worked for the Israeli Defense Force’s 8200 unit — similar to the U.S.’s National Security Alliance — said she always wanted to make an impact in the medical field. “I looked to combine the medical space with my life, and I realized I could have an impact on remote care devices,” she said.