This startup wants to bring clarity to the complex world of IVF

About 180 million people globally suffer from infertility. In the United States, one in eight families have trouble conceiving. The statistics are only getting worse, as male infertility and miscarriages continue to increase.

Alife Health, a San Francisco-based startup founded by Paxton Maeder-York, thinks it can help. The startup wants to use artificial intelligence to increase fertility outcomes. Specifically, it wants to optimize in vitro fertilization, a fertility treatment that requires a series of expensive and emotionally-taxing procedures with varied success rates.

Founded last year, the startup just raised a $9.5 million seed round, led by Lux Capital. Other investment firms include Amplo, IA Ventures and Springbank Collective as well as angel investors such as Anne Wojcicki, the founder and CEO of 23andMe, Fred Moll, the founder of Intuitive Surgical and Auris, and Amira Yahyaoui, the founder of Mos and Sequoia Scout.

“I personally believe that improving the quality of care through personalized treatments and reducing costs by increasing the success outcome rate can be incredibly impactful here, not just for the broader population but also specifically for minority groups,” Maeder-York said.

The founder began his career building surgical robots to fight lung cancer at Auris Health which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson in 2019. Now, he’s onto finding a way to help physicians and patients go through the process of IVF.

FYI, IVF

In vitro fertilization, or IVF, takes on average three to six cycles to get pregnant, and each cycle can cost between $10,000 to $20,000 in the United States. Every woman who goes through the process has to be injected with hormones weekly or biweekly – and even then, success is varied. And beyond steep costs and a long process, anyone who goes through the IVF process often has to endure the emotional toll.

Alife Health could alleviate some uncertainty around the complex process if it succeeds.

Currently, there are startups that focus on disrupting IVF from its cost to its accessibility. Maeder-York thinks that there is no single point solution that can fix the process, so he wants to optimize each part, step by step, from education and awareness, and clinical workflows to the actual embryo selection.

While Alife Health’s long-term goal is to use AI in all aspects of the IVF process, at this point, the technology is only used in one step for Alife Health: the embryo selection process.

Alife Health plans to begin its AI-powered IVF solution through embryo selection. During IVF, future parents might create multiple embryos. It’s then on the doctor to look at that embryo image through a microscope and figure out which is most likely to survive, taking into account patient information.

Alife Health is inserting machine learning based on a massive set of historical data it has aggregated, into the embryo selection equation. Maeder-York said that they plan to use data to understand what the “optimal order of transfer is” and then improve chances of a pregnancy, so people don’t have to go through IVF for the third or fourth time.

“It’s been trained on thousands and thousands of images, knowing that this image and this patient turned into a successful pregnancy, “he said. Once machine learning finds a pattern it can move forward with a recommendation and help future parents prioritize which embryos to transfer.

Pandemic baby

Alife Health is not alone. Two other startups,Embryonic and Mojo, claim they have the AI needed to spot a healthy embryo and improve IVF success.

Israel-based Embryonic is in the early stages of its business and has minimal efficacy proof at this point. Mojo uses microscopy hardware and AI software to focus on sperm counts and then better pick strong sperm for the IVF. Internally testing of Mojo Pro shows that the system is 97% accurate compared to manual sperm counting.

Alife Health is a hardware agnostic program so unlike Mojo, for example, a provider doesn’t need to use or buy a special microscope to use its product.

Deena Shakir, partner at Lux Capital, is joining Alife Health’s board as part of the translation. Shakir said she spent over a year meeting with the team and other IVF-focused startups to develop her thesis before eventually cutting a check. She pointed out a number of reasons that Alife Health stood out to her, primarily its focus on an end-to-end solution at the IVF process, but also its clinician-friendly approach.

“Other kludgey solutions require additional interfaces, hardware, [and] time,” she said. “Clinicians don’t have an appetite for that in their daily workflows. It needs to be intuitive.”

Deena Shakir, partner at Lux Capital, and Paxton Maeder-York, founder of Alife Health

Along with being a software-only solution, Alife Health sees part of its competitive edge as its partnerships with clinics. It has spent years cultivating a network of IVF clinics – and their data on prior cases, treatments and outcomes – to get a representative set that could be used to help any person receiving IVF treatment, it says.

“Unfortunately, women have been consistently underrepresented in research and minority women, black women have been incredibly underrepresented in research,” Maeder-York said. “The fact that our data set is so well stratified and representative of these groups means that when we [see] a patient of one off these minority groups, we’re going to be in a really unique position to give them answers and personalized care.”

Alife Health declined to release information about the efficacy of its AI, and it is still yet to get regulatory approval. Fittingly, millions of dollars should help it get to this next, and crucial phase.

The Duolingo EC-1

Education may well be the most important activity we conduct as a society — and it may also be the hardest space to build a startup in. Selling to school districts and universities is notoriously difficult, but enticing consumers is even harder. Learning takes focus, patience, tenacity and resources, and most consumers would prefer to watch some lip-sync videos on TikTok than stare at math equations (not to mention that such entertainment is free). Engagement and education feel aggressively at odds, which limits the way that startups can scale and succeed.

Yet, the revulsion VCs have traditionally had for the space has slowly dissipated over the past 10 years. Consumer and enterprise startups in edtech are increasingly attracting funding, and there is a growing crop of edtech-focused investors who are betting big on the future here. What’s changed isn’t the market or its potential, but rather the perception that ambitious and sustainable companies can truly be built in education.

One of the companies that has led the charge in transforming those perceptions is Pittsburgh-based Duolingo. It’s a language-learning app that has caught fire. From humble origins a decade ago as a translation platform for news agencies, it’s now used by 500 million people across the world to learn Spanish, English, French and more, all while generating bookings of $190 million in 2020. It’s a smashing success, but a success that was hard earned after a years-long effort of product and revenue experimentation to find its current niche.

TechCrunch’s writer and analyst for this EC-1 is Natasha Mascarenhas. Mascarenhas has been covering edtech from the very first day she joined TechCrunch as a venture capital and startups writer, and she has built up a reputation as a fearless chronicler of this increasingly vital ecosystem. The lead editor of this package was Danny Crichton, the copy editor was Richard Dal Porto, and illustrations were created by Nigel Sussman.

Duolingo had no say in the content of this analysis and did not get advance access to it. Mascarenhas has no financial ties to Duolingo or other conflicts of interest to disclose.

The Duolingo EC-1 comprises four main articles numbering 12,200 words and a reading time of 48 minutes. Here’s what’s in store:

And finally, note that Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn is coming to Disrupt, so make sure to grab your tickets because the conversation will continue there.

We’re always iterating on the EC-1 format. If you have questions, comments or ideas, please send an email to TechCrunch Managing Editor Danny Crichton at [email protected].

How a bot-fighting test turned into edtech’s most iconic brand, Duolingo

Luis von Ahn, an entrepreneur who has dedicated his career to scaling free education, has probably annoyed you more than once. In fact, you’ve likely been annoyed by his work dozens and maybe hundreds of times over the years.

A decade before he co-founded the whimsical and language-learning app Duolingo, one of the most popular education apps in the world with over 500 million downloads and 40 million active users, he was building the technology that would become CAPTCHA, those human-annoying but bot-preventing little tests that pop up when registering or logging in to popular internet services like email.

It may seem like a radical pivot, but in fact, the lessons of how to create useful security tests at scale for consumers would one day offer the core DNA for building one of the most successful edtech companies in the world. The immigrant entrepreneur would soon learn himself that crowdsourcing, language and a willingness to adapt and ignore critics could change the face of an industry forever.

CAPTCHA’ing a market

Von Ahn grew up in Guatemala City, where he saw firsthand the wretched state of public schools in impoverished countries. His mother spent most of her income sending him to “fancy private school” as he puts it, and he estimates she spent over $1 million on his education over his lifetime. The price tag weighed on him, and he knew he wanted to broaden access to education in the future.

After attending Duke as an undergrad, von Ahn was an enterprising first-year computer science Ph.D. student at top-ranked Carnegie Mellon University when he attended a talk by Yahoo’s chief scientist about 10 of Yahoo’s biggest headaches. One issue stood out: hackers were creating bots that register thousands of email addresses to send spam.

Inspired and full of immigrant grit, von Ahn and a team led by his then-adviser Manuel Blum created a nifty little test that could distinguish between bots and humans. The test, called a CAPTCHA, presented squiggly, ink-blotted words whenever a user tried to log in. Computer vision at the time couldn’t read the obscured text, but humans easily could — creating a useful signal. The deceptively simple test worked, so von Ahn, then a 20-something student, gave it to Yahoo for free, not understanding the value it would one day have.

Luis von Ahn, the inventor of CAPTCHA and reCAPTCHA, and co-founder of Duolingo. Image Credits: Duolingo

A fire was lit. With Yahoo as a distribution channel, CAPTCHA tests exploded in popularity, becoming an almost universally recognizable security checkpoint feature. At their peak, people spent 500,000 hours a day typing up to 200 million CAPTCHAs around the world. About 10% of the world’s population had recognized at least one word, von Ahn estimates.

For all the technology’s success, though, there was a downside. “During those 10 seconds while you’re typing in a CAPTCHA, your brain is doing something that computers can’t do, which is amazing,” von Ahn said. But the tests were annoying and pointless, so he wondered, “Could we get those 500,000 hours a day to do something useful for humanity?”

So in 2005, he launched reCAPTCHA. These new tests would have the same goal of CAPTCHA, but with a twist: the prompts would all be scans of books. Users would complete the security test while also helping to digitize books for the Internet Archive.

The early design of reCAPTCHA. Image Credits: Duolingo

This time, von Ahn knew his nifty idea was worth something. In 2009, he sold reCAPTCHA to Google, a transaction conducted just a year after the internet giant had purchased a license to one of his other research projects, a game focused on image labeling.

Luis von Ahn presenting about reCAPTCHA and CAPTCHA, two of his iconic inventions. Image Credits: Duolingo

The acquisition offered not just a monetary award (exact terms of the deal were not disclosed), but also suddenly garnered von Ahn serious clout in the industry just a few years after acquiring his Ph.D. Yet, instead of taking up tenure at the tech company, he stayed local in Pittsburgh and became a computer science professor at his alma mater.

Entering the world of education as a professor felt like an answer to his original dream of expanding access to education. What von Ahn didn’t know, though, was that his iconic work was simply foreshadowing. Carnegie Mellon, crowdsourced translation and even Google would all play a role in his next project as well, albeit in wildly different ways: incubation, failure and investment. For him, the success of two tools that used language as a barrier was the beginning of a long journey into discovering if, and how, language could instead be a bridge. It was an insight that would grow into a startup valued at $2.4 billion with the goal of making language learning fun: Duolingo.

Duolingo’s first words

In 2011, edtech startups such as Coursera and Codecademy were popping up — companies that today are valued as multibillion-dollar businesses. The rise of iPads and tablets in classrooms gave permission to founders who believed the future of education was on the internet. Enthusiasm was boiling, and virtual instruction felt like a nascent, but ambitious, place to bet on.

The product-led growth behind edtech’s most downloaded app

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn was tired of the gray and dreary design aesthetic edtech companies used to emulate universities. Instead, he and the company’s early team sought inspiration from games like Angry Birds and Clash Royale, looking to build a class that screamed more cartoon anarchy than lecture hall. From that frenetic creativity came the company’s distinctive mascot: a childish and rebellious evergreen-colored owl named Duo.

Duolingo didn’t just throw out the old colors though — it wanted to completely rethink language learning from the bottom up for mobile. So it replaced top-down curriculums with analytics-driven growth strategies, becoming consumed by an ethos that has more recently been dubbed product-led growth.

Used by companies such as Calendly, Slack and Dropbox, product-led growth is a strategy in which a company iterates its product to create loyal fans-turned-customers who popularize the product with others, creating a viral growth loop. It’s an attractive route because it vastly lowers the cost of acquiring users while also increasing engagement and thus retention. Duolingo, for example, has taken this model and found ways to embed engagement hooks, pockets of joy and addictive education features within its core app.

With early venture capital in its pocket, Duolingo could afford to focus on product over profits.

In part one of this EC-1, we explored how von Ahn’s previous products around CAPTCHA led to Duolingo’s launch, the rise and fall of crowdsourced translation as a way to disrupt language learning, and the accidental iteration of a top education app by a pair of interns. The startups’ early signs of success gave it energy to focus on growth to accomplish two things: know what they’re doing works, and garner a lot of user data so it continued iterating the product into something that was ever more addicting to use.

Now, we’ll analyze how Duolingo used product-led growth as a lever to expand its consumer base, and how a company built on gamification tries to balance its whimsy with education outcomes.

Duo, Duolingo’s mascot, flying around. Image Credits: Duolingo

From Angry Birds to an amusing and sometimes scowling owl

Tyler Murphy, having graduated from his intern position at Duolingo launching the company’s iOS app, noticed that the gaming world was rapidly innovating around him in the mid-2010s. Angry Birds was no longer the only popular game on mobile, and video games generally were getting more engaging, with in-app currencies, progress bars and an experience that felt creatively addictive. He suddenly saw connections between the entertainment that games provided and the patient learning required for languages.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if the skill got harder and harder, kind of like how a character in a game gets more powerful and powerful?” he remembers asking. Duolingo had taken early inspiration from Angry Birds as well as Clash Royale later, following that game’s launch in 2016. “Half the people at Duolingo were playing Clash Royale, at some point,” he said. “And I think that shaped our product roadmap a lot and our design language a lot.”

Games solved a problem that was acutely personal for Murphy. The employee, who would go on to become chief designer at Duolingo, had gone to college to teach Spanish to students, but ultimately left the field after struggling to inspire kids in a classroom setting. The realization that Duolingo could borrow from gaming instead of monotonous edtech companies gave an adrenaline rush — and permission — to the team to experiment with new approaches to learning.

Every game needs some form of experience points and leveling up, and for Duolingo learners, that progress comes in the form of skill trees.

These trees, which were conceived by a design agency during the company’s early development, are Duolingo’s core experience, a visual representation of language skills that are interconnected and get progressively more difficult and refined over time. Each skill is a prerequisite for another. Sometimes it’s just logic: in order to be able to speak about restaurants, you probably should be able to introduce yourself first. Sometimes, however, it’s a necessary building block: in order to speak about your routine, you should be able to speak about basic everyday activities.

In Duolingo, each unit has its own suite of skills, each of which is broken down into five lessons. Once you complete all five lessons, you can move to the next skill. Complete all skills and you can move to the next unit. Depending on the language, a user might encounter an average of 60 skills across nine different units within a course.

Duolingo Skill Tree UX in 2012. Image Credits: Duolingo

Duolingo Skill Tree UX in 2021. Image Credits: Duolingo

The growth power of a cartoon owl meme

Duolingo had its “leveling up” model figured out, but now it had to integrate gamification into every nook and cranny of its app. One of its first challenges was rebuilding the sort of teacher-student emotional bond that can help students stay motivated to learn. No one likes to fail, and Duolingo stumbled upon a scalable approach through its cartoon owl mascot Duo — also thought of by the design agency behind the skill trees.

Whenever users succeed or fail at their lessons today, they are likely to be encouraged or admonished by Duo’s presence. Designers sprinkled Duo throughout the product, looking at Super Mario Brothers as an example of how to use iconic art to create a friendly gaming experience. In early iterations of the app, Duo was present but static, more of an icon than a personality. That changed as the company increasingly pushed harder on engagement.

How Duolingo became fluent in monetization

As its meandering route to monetization will demonstrate, Duolingo isn’t mission-oriented, it’s mission-obsessed.

Co-founders Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker never wanted to charge consumers for access to Duolingo content, a purpose imbued throughout the company’s culture. For years in order to work at Duolingo, you had to be comfortable with joining a company in Pittsburgh that was in no rush to make money. The startup, filled with education enthusiasts and mission-driven employees, became “very college pizza vibes,” Gina Gotthilf, former VP of Marketing at Duolingo, described. Everyone was against making money and having structure — some employees even threatened to quit if Duolingo ever charged a cent to users.

“One thing that recruited me was this brilliance that we can kill two birds with one stone,” she said, referring to Duolingo’s original translation-service business model we talked about in part one of this EC-1. “It was obviously tied to Luis’ thinking and reCAPTCHA and it was magical and brilliant.”

Free may not have paid the bills, but it did come with a valuable upside: growth. By 2017, Duolingo would boast having 200 million users, which was double von Ahn’s goal when he first launched to the public on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage.

Duolingo launched saying it would never do advertisements, subscriptions or in-app purchases — approaches that now all exist on the platform. Today, Duolingo has a simple freemium business model that is remarkably unconventional. It has a free version with all of its learning content, and it charges a subscription of $6.99 per month for paywalled features such as unlimited hearts, no advertisements and progress tracking. It also has a number of other revenue streams it’s developing, such as language proficiency tests.

As we’ll explore, Duolingo’s route from anti-business rebel to conventional consumer subscription is complex, full of twists and turns. While Duolingo never wanted to look like other edtech companies, as we saw with its product strategy in part two, it turns out that evolving from college pizza vibes meant that it would have to take a page from its peers.

Duocon, Duolingo’s new conference to celebrate education and language. Image Credits: Duolingo

Business only speaks one language: Money

“They had users and in Silicon Valley, there was this notion that if you have users, you can turn anything into money,” said Bing Gordon, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) partner who led Duolingo’s $20 million Series C in 2014.

“This was not very controversial back then, at least with investors,” von Ahn said. “This became controversial for us once we raised a ton of money, and we still weren’t making more money.”

While the company’s investors were relatively lenient in the early years, patience was starting to run thin. In June 2015, Duolingo raised a $45 million Series D round led by Laela Sturdy of Google Capital (later rebranded CapitalG), valuing the company at $470 million. She invested because of Duolingo’s growth and engagement numbers, but confronted von Ahn with some direct advice.

“She said to me, ‘Look, it worked for you to continue getting bigger and bigger checks from venture capital,’” von Ahn said. “‘But this is the last time it works for you … if you’re trying to con people, you cannot con anybody bigger than us [at Google].’” Duolingo’s valuation wouldn’t just be at stake next time it went fundraising on Sand Hill Road — its very survival would be as well.

Looking back, Sturdy said that she always “had confidence that they would come up with a revenue model” because of Duolingo’s passionate and organic users.

When a startup chooses to raise venture capital, it sets itself on a heavily-prescribed course. Suddenly, success isn’t defined merely as cash-flow breakeven with a long-term sustainable business. It has to be an exit of some sorts, and a big one at that. While Duolingo used venture as a lifeline to fund its product development, venture also came with pressure to become a billion-dollar company, or more. And that meant making revenue, not just growing engagement.

Von Ahn says his conversation with Sturdy is what really changed his mindset about money. After the Google check hit Duolingo’s bank account, he and Hacker began thinking about ways to make Duolingo as much a monetary success as it had been an educational one.

Duolingo’s Pittsburgh HQ. Image Credits: Duolingo

Dr. Ahn or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the revenue(s)

“It was clear that Luis didn’t have commercial instincts, he had cultural instincts and a deep focus on learning,” said Gordon. “[When we invested] Duolingo predicted it was on the verge of revenue growth, and it turned out it was not on the verge of revenue growth.”

What Gordon is alluding to was a litany of monetization attempts in Duolingo’s past. Translation, which helped von Ahn’s previous two startups, didn’t work when applied to language-learning services, and the company only secured two customers before ending the service. Business partnerships, such as a relationship with Uber to certify and train drivers in Brazil to speak English, didn’t catch fire.

Duolingo can’t teach you how to speak a language, but now it wants to try

Duolingo has been wildly successful. It has pulled in 500 million total registered learners, 40 million active users, 1.5 million premium subscribers and $190 million in booked revenues in 2020. It has a popular and meme-ified mascot in the form of the owl Duo, a creative and engaging product, and ambitious plans for expansion.There’s just one key question in the midst of all those milestones: Does anyone actually learn a language using Duolingo?

“Language is first and foremost a social, relational phenomenon,” said Sébastien Dubreil, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It is something that allows people to make meaning and talk to each other and conduct the business of living — and when you do this, you use a tone of different kinds of resources that are not packaged in the vocabulary and grammar.”

Duolingo CEO and co-founder Luis von Ahn estimates that Duolingo’s upcoming product developments will get users from zero to a knowledge job in a different language within the next two to three years. But for now, he is honest about the limits of the platform today.

“I won’t say that with Duolingo, you can start from zero and make your English as good as mine,” he said. “That’s not true. But that’s also not true with learning a language in a university, that’s not true with buying books, that’s not true with any other app.”

Luis von Ahn, the co-founder of Duolingo, visiting President Obama in 2015. Image Credits: Duolingo

While Dubreil doesn’t think Duolingo can teach someone to speak a language, he does think it has taught consistency — a hard nut to crack in edtech. “What Duolingo does is to potentially entice students to do things you cannot pay them enough time to actually do, which is to spend time in that textbook and reinforce vocabulary and the grammar,” he said.

That’s been the key focus for the company since the beginning. “I said this when we started Duolingo and I still really strongly believe it: The hardest thing about learning a language is staying motivated,” von Ahn said, comparing it to how people approach exercise: it’s hard to stay motivated, but a little motion a day goes a long way.

With an enviable lead in its category, Duolingo wants to bring the quality and effectiveness of its curriculum on par with the quality of its product and branding. With growth and monetization secured, Duolingo is no longer in survival mode. Instead, it’s in study mode.

In this final part, we will explore how Duolingo is using a variety of strategies, from rewriting its courses to what it dubs Operation Birdbrain, to become a more effective learning tool, all while balancing the need to keep the growth and monetization engines stoked while en route to an IPO.

Duolingo’s office decor. Image Credits: Duolingo

“Just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Duolingo’s competitors see the app’s massive gamification and solitary experience as inherently contradictory with high-quality language education. Busuu and Babbel, two subscription-based competitors in the market, both focus on users talking in real time to native speakers.

Bernhard Niesner, the co-founder and CEO of Busuu, which was founded in 2008, sees Duolingo as an entry-level tool that can help users migrate to its human-interactive service. “If you want to be fluent, Duolingo needs innovation,” Niesner said. “And that’s where we come in: We all believe that you should not be learning a language just by yourself, but [ … ] together, which is our vision.” Busuu has more than 90 million users worldwide.

Duolingo has been the subject of a number of efficacy studies over the years. One of its most positive reports, from September 2020, showed that its Spanish and French courses teach the equivalent of four U.S. university semesters in half the time.

Babbel, which has sold over 10 million subscriptions to its language-learning service, cast doubt on the power of these findings. Christian Hillemeyer, who heads PR for the startup, pointed out that Duolingo only tested for reading and writing efficacy — not for speaking proficiency, even though that is a key part of language learning. He described Duolingo as “just a funny game that is maybe not as bad as Candy Crush.”

Putting the ed back into edtech

One of the ironic legacies of Duolingo’s evolution is that for years it outsourced much of the creation of its education curriculum to volunteers. It’s a legacy the company is still trying to rectify.

The year after its founding, Duolingo launched its Language Incubator in 2013. Similar to its original translation service, the company wanted to leverage crowdsourcing to invent and refine new language courses. Volunteers — at least at first — were seen as a scrappy way to bring new material to the growing Duolingo community and more than 1,000 volunteers have helped bring new language courses to the app.

Emotional marketing and an e-mail titan walk into a bar

My mom cuts to the chase when she is describing my beat to others. In her words, I cover companies like Uber before they become companies like Uber. And honestly? I can’t exactly disagree with the description. The best feeling in tech journalism is telling a story about a startup before it becomes a household name. As an early-stage reporter, I honestly bet a lot on the potential of a savvy edtech founder or creative marketplace play. And when I’m doing my job right, I point to the unique insight that will make the startup successful or challenged in the future.

On that note, one of my favorite renewed series at TechCrunch is an EC-1 (Extra Crunch subscription required), a story series that goes through the nitty-gritty of a startup’s story, from its original days to its pivots along the way. I’ve spent the past few months on one of these projects — and mine is coming out next week! In the meantime, you’ve read packages about StockX and Tonal, and our latest just came out: the Klaviyo EC-1:

Image Credits: Nigel Sussman

Enjoy this long-form read and big thanks to Danny Crichton, my Equity co-host and managing editor here at TechCrunch, who has been managing and editing all of these projects.

In the rest of this newsletter we’ll get into All Raise data, the new Miami and a new lineup you don’t want to miss. Follow me on Twitter @nmasc_ for updates throughout the week.

All (aren’t) Raise(d)

All Raise, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the footprint of women founders and funders, has released its annual report for 2020. The whole thing is honestly worth a read, but we especially paid attention to how funding has dropped for female founders:

  • Round sizes for women + non-binary founders were up to 49% lower than males
  • 85% of venture funding goes to all-male teams
  • 64% of VC firms still don’t have a single female partner
  • Black + Latinx female founders receive only 0.64% of VC funding, a slight uptick from the year prior.

Here’s what to know: On Equity, we talked about how these abysmal metrics were both a predicted but still surprising effect of Zoom investing. This disconnect is the conversation no one has during an upmarket — and metrics are one way we can benchmark progress.

Internet is the new Miami

To quote Winnie CEO and co-founder Sara Mauskopf, “Internet is the new Miami.” The networks made online — either through the rise of meme culture or Substack spice — can be a competitive advantage in the world of investment, as two new funds this week showed us.

Here’s what to know: Ryan Hoover and Vedika Jain announced Weekend Fund 3, which will include a $1 million community raise. And Chief Meme Officer Turner Novak finally debuted Banana Capital’s debut fund launched with $9.99 million in funding.

Novak explained how being internet-first impacts his investments:

“It just kind of happens where [my investments] are people who understand the culture of the internet, to understand memes and understand wit and humor and appreciate that a little bit more,” he said. “Those are probably the people that are more naturally intuitive investments, so it definitely does skew that direction.”

While Novak didn’t share explicit targets or mandates around investment in diverse founders, he pointed to his track record at Gelt VC, in which 41% of capital went to woman CEOs. To date, 65% of Banana Capital’s portfolio founding teams include non-white founders and 50% of the teams include more than one gender.

Around TechCrunch

Across the week

Seen on TechCrunch

The AWS for blockchain

Atlassian launches a Jira for every team

CES will return to Las Vegas in 2022

Microsoft’s new default font options, rated

Seen on Extra Crunch

Hacking my way into analytics: A creative’s journey to design with data

How Brex more than doubled its valuation in a year

And finally

India is in crisis. It is devastating and heartbreaking to watch this unfold and impact our family and friends and colleagues and people. My colleague Manish Singh, who is based there, wrote up the different ways you can donate to help out.

I’ll end by quoting Singh:

With several major industries, including film and sports, going about their lives pretending there is no crisis, entrepreneurs and startups have emerged as a rare beam of hope in recent days, springing to action to help the nation navigate its darkest hours.

It’s a refreshing change from last year, when thousands of Indian startups themselves were struggling to survive. And while some startups are still severely disrupted, offering a helping hand to the nation has become the priority for most.

Until next week,

N

Lambda School lays off 65 employees amid restructuring

Nearly a year after its last layoff, online coding bootcamp Lambda School just announced more cuts amid a broader structuring. In a blog post, CEO and founder Austen Allred said that the startup, which raised a $74 million Series C in August, is laying off 65 employees. 

The roles that were cut span senior product, engineering, design, community management, or instructional staff. There is a Google form for companies to post job opportunities for new Lambda School alumni. 

“We have been working for years on making incentive-aligned education work,” Allred wrote in a tweet. “It’s harder than we initially thought; we’ve had to invent a lot from scratch simultaneously and we have to get a lot of things exactly right.”

Lambda School creates online bootcamps in the career and technical space — and it’s also a pioneer of the ISA, an income share agreement, touting it as a vital way to finance employment-ready education. ISAs essentially allow students to avoid paying upfront fees to attend a bootcamp, and then ultimately pay back class fees through a percent of their future income. A number of startups have taken the ‘Lambda School for X’ format, such as Henry and Microverse. Other companies also offer ISAs such as Pursuit, V School, Launch School, and the Grace Hopper Program, one analysis shows. 

The pandemic, and volatile economic circumstances, have made ISAs a harder route. Allred said that some startups pivoted from the model, but it appears that Lambda School will not. It’s still a hard thing to finance as a startup, since the company is essentially in a waiting game of debt until students pay. The company might be looking at a variety of ways to fund the ISA business, one of which got them in hot water years ago. 

 “We have a lot of interest in purchasing the income share agreements at the point of graduation, from investment funds and that kind of thing,” Allred said back in April 2020. 

We don’t know how exactly the restructuring will look from a strategy perspective, beyond the fact that Lambda School is pausing new enrollment in part-time programs. . Earlier this month, Lambda School announced a new partnership with Amazon: a back-end engineering program that will last for nine months. Since the program is full-time, it is likely not impacted by the restructuring. 

Today’s call by Lambda School illustrates how hard it is to build an edtech company that is truly doing something new. The company has a lot of stakeholders with different incentives to consider: students saving money, businesses making money, and venture capitalists who have given millions and millions to the company expecting some type of exit one day. 

“Despite these changes, our mission remains the same. As we move forward, we will continue to focus on unlocking opportunity, regardless of circumstance, for everyone willing to put in the work,” the blog post reads. Allred didn’t immediately respond to request for comment

In a room with no smart speaker, Alexa can’t hear you scream

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

For this week’s deep dive Natasha and Alex and Danny and Chris dove into the world of audio. Sure, you’ve heard of Clubhouse, but there’s lots more going on than just a single app’s cultural rise. So from the biggest companies to niche startups, we compiled all the recent audio news into a single show for all our delectation.

Here’s the rundown:

  • Facebook is building a number of audio products, including a Clubhouse clone and a short-form audio service that we think could be neat.
  • Reddit is also building a Clubhouse-like service, and Alex is excited about it.
  • It’s not just the established social networks that are trying out live audio. Peanut, a social networking app for women, added live audio “Pods” to its platform. It kicked off a conversation on what it takes to win this market, and what’s a smart versus silly bet.
  • While a drop in downloads doesn’t necessarily mean a drop in active users, it’s worth pointing out that Clubhouse’s monthly downloads dropped 72% in March. Where is that gosh darn Android app?
  • And Alex explained why the Clubhouse-NFL deal matters for the company, as it could molt into something more akin to a platform over time.
  • Danny explained how Apple and Spotify are building paid podcast services — more here, and here, respectively — and we have thoughts about which service is being more fair with the money. Natasha tied in how sentiment around the creator economy might be driving some of these individual-friendly business models.
  • Alex brought up TWiT’s new business model.

All told there’s quite a lot of excitement around the spoken word. Which is good as Equity is a podcast? Right?

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 AM PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts!

Banana Capital’s debut fund is for internet-first founders

You might know him for his viral tweets, but Turner Novak wasn’t always a master meme-maker.

Instead, Novak grew up with a single mother in the United States. The financial situation of his family led to the internet being not always accessible. They often hop-scotched between discounted trials and went months without access. The experience, he says, was formative in his relationship with technology more broadly.

“It really made me appreciate just how impactful and how important the internet is” he said. “And it [taught] me how to use it efficiently.”

Now, the investor has started a firm peeled from the ethos. Banana Capital is a firm that will seed and source consumer tech founders from the corners of the web. The oversubscribed debut fund is $9.99 million and the average check size is between $25,000 to $300,000. Investors in Banana Capital include Winnie co-founder Sara Mauskopf, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Sriram Krishnan and GGV managing partner Hans Tung. VC Starter Kit, a meme account for tech Twitter, is also an LP.

Novak will be investing in the broad consumer sector, with specific interest in early-stage startups in the social, healthcare and e-commerce sector. He is targeting ownership between 0.2% to 3%. Comparatively, Cleo Capital, a pre-seed stage with the same assets under management, leads checks and targets between 15% to 20% ownership in its rounds.

Novak says he made a choice to actively target low ownership instead of leading rounds to give him flexibility in what stages to play in long term.

Memes and banana peels

Novak describes Banana Capital as an internet-first fund. But while that phrase can often be a buzzword, his track record gives some color on how a network built by the internet, instead of geography, looks.

Novak’s vibe might be best shown in his meme game. Novak was part of the Eye Mouth Eye ( 👁👄👁) campaign that rocked Silicon Valley in June 2020, that used meme culture to illustrate how FOMO and hype are what catch investor attention. He is one of a handful of investors who religiously post memes on Twitter and TikTok about tech. He has a recurring series about audio social app Clubhouse and its fundraisers. One of his viral tweets was a mock video of a startup pitching to a VC, which racked up more than 186,200 views on Twitter, as well as a handful of duets on TikTok.

While some of his tweets are simply for the spice, the memes have become somewhat of a strategy for the emerging fund manager. His mock pitch video, for example, led to an investment in a company. Founders often directly message him after a tweet inviting him to join an open cap table slot. The strategy is part of his differentiation when it comes to deal flow. Banana Capital’s portfolio has 11 known investments, including Flexbase, Skillful and Bottomless.

“It just kind of happens where [my investments] are people who understand the culture of the internet, to understand memes and understand wit and humor and appreciate that a little bit more,” he said. “Those are probably the people that are more naturally intuitive investments, so it definitely does skew that direction.”

While Novak didn’t share explicit targets or mandates around investment in diverse founders, he pointed to his track record at Gelt VC, in which 41% of capital went to woman CEOs. To date, 65% of Banana Capital’s portfolio founding teams include non-white founders and 50% of the teams include more than one gender.

Novak plans on staying in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the foreseeable future, but couldn’t resist a poke at Miami, a growing, buzzy tech hub. URL jokes aside, his geography, so to speak, will be the internet.

“My network is not in San Francisco and New York, it’s more so just people like on the internet,” he said. “That’s just how I meet people.”

Novak had multiple explanations for why he is choosing to call his firm Banana Capital. First, bananas are one of the most consumed fruits out there and have been through numerous iterations and bio-engineering processes throughout history, with a nod to the focus of his investments in the consumer sphere.

Second? “There really are no fruit funds out there,” he said. “My vibe is that I take myself a little less seriously than other people and the name just reflected that.