Solarisbank raises $224M at a $1.65B valuation to acquire Contis and expand its API-based embedded banking tech in Europe

Embedded finance — the process by which some of the more complicated, but also commoditized, aspects of financial services are built and wrapped in an API for anyone else to implement in their own products for end users — has become a huge cornerstone of how fintech is built today. Now, one of the earlier and bigger movers in the space is announcing a major round of growth funding to build out its own.

Solarisbank, a Berlin startup that provides a range of financial services by way of some 180 APIs that others use to build end user-facing products — they include basic banking and card services; lending; payments; and know your customer services — has raised €190 million ($224 million) in a Series D that values the company at €1.4 billion ($1.65 billion), and announced the acquisition of one of its competitors in the space, Contis.

Decisive Capital Management, a Swiss firm that has also backed insurtech startup Wefox, led the round with Pathway Capital Management, CNP (Groupe Frère) and Ilavska Vuillermoz Capital; and previous backers yabeo Capital, BBVA, Vulcan Capital and HV Capital, also participating.

The round is coming about a year after its last round of $67.5 million, but as a sign of the times, what is perhaps more notable is that the company’s valuation has nearly quintupled since then (it was $360 million in June 2020).

This latest round is going to be used for expansion. CEO Roland Folz said in an interview that the Contis acquisition — which underscores a wider consolidation trend in fintech — will help it better cover all of Europe, and start to make its first early moves into Asia. (No plans right now to add the U.S. to that list, he added.)

He added that the combined entity will be making revenues in the “triple-digit euros” — that is, hundreds of millions; it posted net revenues of €35 million in 2020 — and will be in a position to go public next year, if it chooses to.

In the meantime, it’s hoping to double down on the huge shift we’re seeing in the world of financial services, where consumers and businesses are opting for newer and more modern banking experiences as they migrate away from slower, less flexible and sometimes more expensive incumbents.

“Europe is an ideal space for us to work in,” said Folz. “We believe that in Europe there are roughly 800 million bank accounts and some 400 million of those will change ‘ownership’, where traditional banks will be swapped out with non-traditional banks… If we look at the 5-10 year perspective, we want to make sure a  significant proportion of those accounts will be on our platform.”

SolarisBank counts companies like Trade Republic, American Express, BP, Samsung and Vivid among its customers, powering basic banking, know-your-customer checks, lending, digital wallet and other services related to finance for companies that can in turn focus their energies on building more user-friendly customer experiences or other services altogether. It’s been growing at a rate of 40%-60% annually, Folz added, and it has some 50 “partners” (as it calls its customers) in all, covering some 2 million customer accounts.

Contis, meanwhile, is a substantial business in its own right, with some 200 customers covering more than 2 million users and €9.9 billion in transactions annually.

Solarisbank was founded five years ago, in 2016, out of the Berlin-based startup incubator and investor finleap, with Ramin Niroumand, a founder of finleap, essentially the “founder” of Solarisbank too. (Currently and more more formally, he is also chairman of its advisory board.)

Embedded finance is all the rage at the moment, and a number of startups today are providing fintech-as-a-service, or banking-as-a-service tools to third parties. Other notable names in the same segment of the market include Railsbank (which also announced funding earlier this month),  Rapyd, which also raised a big round at a $2.5 billion valuation earlier this year; Unit, another banking-as-a-service startup picking up funding and growing; FintechOS, which really does what its name says (and is also currently raising $$); and the startup 10x, which ironically is targeting incumbents.

Solarisbank believes its particular approach to this gap in the market gives it more flexibility and mileage: unlike its rivals, the bulked-up Solarisbank will have both banking licenses for Europe, and e-money licenses (in Lithuania and UK), with its tech stack living on AWS, giving it an opportunity to build more services, to scale, and to keep better margins in the process — a critical detail in what is essentially an economy of scale play.

It also believes that its own diversity in its customer base — covering not just obvious fintech companies like neobanks, but a variety of others, like Samsung, that are building financial services (in its case, a digital wallet) — gives it more staying power, to cater to whatever segment of that base is growing most at any given time. As Niroumand points out, around 70% of its revenues some from some 30% of its customers. “It’s quite a diverse clientele we are serving,” he said.

The company is currently active in Germany, France, Italy and Spain but says it can cover the whole EEA with passporting.

“With the combined entity, we are looking at numbers that no one else is even close to remotely,” added Folz.

The market opportunity, combined with Solarisbank’s approach and its current customer base, are what attracted investors.

“We are experiencing a paradigm shift in banking, where customers expect financial services to adapt to their specific needs,” says Thomas Schlytter-Henrichen, a partner at Decisive Capital Management, in a statement. “Technology is the key to enable this transformation and Solarisbank’s powerful Banking-as-a-Service platform positions it perfectly for this new banking era. We are both inspired by the team and thrilled to work together on its mission.”

NotCo gets its horn following $235M round to expand plant-based food products

NotCo, a food technology company making plant-based milk and meat replacements, wrapped up another funding round this year, a $235 million Series D round that gives it a $1.5 billion valuation.

Tiger Global led the round and was joined by new investors, including DFJ Growth Fund, the social impact foundation, ZOMA Lab; athletes Lewis Hamilton and Roger Federer; and musician and DJ Questlove. Follow-on investors included Bezos Expeditions, Enlightened Hospitality Investments, Future Positive, L Catterton and Kaszek Ventures.

This funding round follows an undisclosed investment in June from Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer through his firm EHI. In total, NotCo, with roots in both Chile and New York, has raised more than $350 million, founder and CEO Matias Muchnick told TechCrunch.

Currently, the company has four product lines: NotMilk, NotBurger and NotMeat, NoticeCream and NotMayo, which are available in the five countries of the U.S., Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia.

The company is operating in the middle of a trend toward eating healthier food, as more consumers also question how their food is made, resulting in demand for alternative proteins. In fact, the market for alternative meat, eggs, dairy and seafood products is predicted to reach $290 billion by 2035, according to research by Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon Corp.

NotCo’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology, Giuseppe, matches animal proteins to their ideal replacements among thousands of plant-based ingredients. It is working to crack the code in understanding the molecular components and food characteristics in the combination of two ingredients that could mimic milk, but in a more sustainable and resourceful way — and that also tastes good, which is the biggest barrier to adoption, Muchnick said.

“Our theory is that there is a crazy dynamic among people: 60% who are already eating plant-based are not happy with the taste, and 30% of those who drink cow’s milk are waiting to change if there is a similar taste,” he added. “Our technology is based in AI so that we can create a different food system, as well as products faster and better than others in the space. There are 300,000 plant species, and we still have no idea what 99% of them can do.”

In addition to a flow of investments this year, the company launched its NotMilk brand in the United States seven months ago and is on track to be in 8,000 locations across retailers like Whole Foods Market, Sprouts and Wegmans by the end of 2021.

Muchnick plans to allocate some of the new funding to establish markets in Mexico and Canada and add market share in the U.S. and Chile. He expects to have 50% of its business coming from the U.S. over the next three years. He is also eyeing an expansion into Asia and Europe in the next year.

NotCo also intends to add more products, like chicken and other white meats and seafood, and to invest in technology and R&D. He expects to do that by doubling the company’s current headcount of 100 in the next two years. Muchnick also wants to establish more patents in food science — the company already has five — and to explore a potential intelligence side of the business.

Though NotCo reached unicorn status, Muchnick said the real prize is the brand awareness and subsequent sales boost, as well as opening doors for quick-service restaurant deals. NotBurger went into Burger King restaurants in Chile 11 months ago, and now has 5% of the market there, he added.

Sales overall have grown three times annually over the past four years, something Muchnick said was attractive to Tiger Global. He is equally happy to work with Tiger, especially as the company prepares to go public in the next two or three years. He said Tiger’s expertise will get NotCo there in a more prepared manner.

“NotCo has created world class plant-based food products that are rapidly gaining market share,” said Scott Shleifer, partner at Tiger Global, in a written statement. “We are excited to partner with Matias and his team. We expect continued product innovation and expansion into new geographies and food categories will fuel high and sustainable growth for years to come.”

 

Despite controversies and bans, facial recognition startups are flush with VC cash

If efforts by states and cities to pass privacy regulations curbing the use of facial recognition are anything to go by, you might fear the worst for the companies building the technology. But a recent influx of investor cash suggests the facial recognition startup sector is thriving, not suffering.

Facial recognition is one of the most controversial and complex policy areas in play. The technology can be used to track where you go and what you do. It’s used by public authorities and in private businesses like stores. But facial recognition has been shown to be flawed and inaccurate, often misidentifies non-white faces, and is disproportionately affects communities of color. Its flawed algorithms have already been used to send innocent people to jail, and privacy advocates have raised countless concerns about how this kind of biometric data is stored and used.

With the threat of federal legislation looming, some of the biggest facial recognition companies like Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft announced they would stop selling their facial recognition technology to police departments to try to appease angry investors, customers, and even their own employees who protested the deployment of such technologies by the U.S. government and immigration authorities.

The pushback against facial recognition didn’t stop there. Since the start of the year, Maine, Massachusetts, and the city of Minneapolis have all passed legislation curbing or banning the use of facial recognition in some form, following in the steps of many other cities and states before them and setting the stage for others, like New York, which are eyeing legislation of their own.

In those same six or so months, investors have funneled hundreds of millions into several facial recognition startups. A breakdown of Crunchbase data by FindBiometrics shows a sharp rise in venture funding in facial recognition companies at well over $500 million in 2021 so far, compared to $622 million for all of 2020.

About half of that $500 million comes from one startup alone. Israel-based startup AnyVision raised $235 million at Series C earlier this month from SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2 for its facial recognition technology that’s used in schools, stadiums, casinos, and retail stores. Macy’s is a known customer, and uses the face-scanning technology to identify shoplifters. It’s a steep funding round compared to a year earlier when Microsoft publicly pulled its investment in AnyVision’s Series A following an investigation by former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder into reports that the startup’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

Read more on TechCrunch

Paravision, the company marred by controversy after it was accused of using facial recognition on its users without informing them, raised $23 million in a funding round led by J2 Ventures.

And last week, Clearview AI, the controversial facial recognition startup that is the subject of several government investigations and multiple class-action suits for allegedly scraping billions of profile photos from social media sites, confirmed to The New York Times it raised $30 million from investors who asked “not to be identified,” only that they are “institutional investors and private family offices.” That is to say, while investors are happy to see their money go towards building facial recognition systems, they too are all too aware of the risks and controversies associated with attaching their names to the technology.

Although the applications and customers of facial recognition wildly vary, there’s still a big market for the technology.

Many of the cities and towns with facial recognition bans also have carve outs that allow its use in some circumstances, or broad exemptions for private businesses that can freely buy and use the technology. The exclusion of many China-based facial recognition companies, like Hikvision and Dahua, which the government has linked to human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang, as well as dozens of other startups blacklisted by the U.S. government, has helped push out some of the greatest competition from the most lucrative U.S. markets, like government customers

But as facial recognition continues to draw scrutiny, investors are urging companies to do more to make sure their technologies are not being misused.

In June, a group of 50 investors with more than $4.5 trillion in assets called on dozens of facial recognition companies, including Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba and Huawei, to build their technologies ethically.

“In some instances, new technologies such as facial recognition technology may also undermine our fundamental rights. Yet this technology is being designed and used in a largely unconstrained way, presenting risks to basic human rights,” the statement read.

It’s not just ethics, but also a matter of trying to future-proof the industry from inevitable further political headwinds. In April, the European Union’s top data protection watchdog called for an end to facial recognition in public spaces across the bloc.

“As mass surveillance expands, technological innovation is outpacing human rights protection. There are growing reports of bans, fines, and blacklistings of the use of facial recognition technology. There is a pressing need to consider these questions,” the statement added.

One of Nigeria’s high profile angel investors is launching a fund for African startups

Olumide Soyombo is one of the well-known active angel investors in Nigeria tech startups and Africa at large. Since he began angel investing in 2014, Soyombo has invested in 33 startups, including Stripe-owned Paystack, PiggyVest, and TeamApt.

Today, the investor is announcing the launch of Voltron Capital, a Pan-African venture capital firm he co-founded with Abe Choi, a U.S.-based entrepreneur and investor.

Voltron will be deploying capital to roughly 30 startups, mostly in pre-seed and seed-stage across Africa, in a bid to “address the severe lack of access to early-stage funding for African tech companies.” The ticket sizes will range from $20,000 to $100,000, focusing on startups in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and North Africa.

Soyombo is one of the few founder-cum-investors on the continent, despite his company not being the traditional VC-backed startup the world has become accustomed to. In 2008, he started Bluechip Technologies with a friend, Kazeem Tewogbade as an enterprise company that provides data warehousing solutions and enterprise applications to banks, telcos, insurance firms. Some of its biggest clients include OEMs like Oracle.

Non-traditional startup founder to an angel investor

Six years later, the pair decided to venture into tech, a relatively nascent industry in Nigeria at the time and began investing in startups via LeadPath, an early-stage firm they launched in Lagos, Nigeria. The idea was to invest $25,000 and take the startups through a three-month accelerator program culminating in a Demo Day. The plan was to run LeadPath like Y Combinator but it didn’t take off as planned.

“In 2014, three months after we found out that there was no investor to put them in front of. So you’d have to write another check yourself,” Soyombo said humorously over the phone. “We quickly saw that the accelerator model didn’t work, so we started investing individually. It’s funny how things have changed since then.”

LeadPath became a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the pair to carry out their angel investing deals. And over the years, Soyombo has launched several SPVs for the same purpose. So, why do things differently now by creating a fund? Soyombo walks me through one of the processes he has used to fund deals over the years to answer this question.

As an influential figure in Nigeria’s tech ecosystem, Soyombo has access to almost any important deal in the market. “I get the privilege of seeing many deals before most people see them. I’ve built that network within the startup ecosystem and reputation as an angel always ready to help. So obviously, that helped me see many deals very quickly,” he said. Often, his deal flows are filled with startups seeking six-figure pre-seed to seed investments. Say, for instance, a founder is looking to raise $300,000, Soyombo can typically invest $50,000 of his own money. And based on his perception of the startup’s growth prospects, he can choose to bring his friends and acquaintances on board to fill the round.

This informal approach is what Soyombo wants to make formal via a structured format where each individual or organisational LPs gets access to his deal flow simultaneously. The investor believes companies will get capital quicker this way. And the interesting bit is that his work in corporate Nigeria has allowed him to access non-traditional capital which means some of the investors that use Soyombo’s deal flows are outside the typical Nigerian tech investing landscape. 

He sees his job as someone bridging the gap of angel investing between his corporate friends and colleagues who have not typically invested in tech and startups that need their money. 

“There’s a bit of FOMO now,” he said. “People, including high net worth individuals, tell me to carry them along anytime I’m investing, and then I have startups looking for capital as well. But then again, I’m not trying to get a full job by managing a full fund which is why we’ve structured it this way.”

Anyone familiar with the happenings in African tech these past few months knows the two events that have caused this FOMO: Paystack’s exit to Stripe and Flutterwave’s unicorn status. Soyombo was an early investor in the former, marking his solitary primary exit alongside two secondaries within a portfolio that have cumulatively raised over $70 million. Thus, it’s not hard to see why Soyombo isn’t having a hard time convincing non-traditional investors, including HNIs (who are notoriously risk-averse when it comes to tech investing), to write checks in startups.

All of a sudden, everyone is interested in what’s happening in the space. The HNIs that would’ve thrown money into real estate are looking for startups. We even see older HNIs telling their children to invest on their behalf, so it’s an easier conversation to have. Most of them want to diversify their portfolio by having a piece of that pie,” he said, pointing to Paystack and Flutterwave successes.

Abe Choi (Co-founder, Voltron)

Voltron Capital will be managed on AngelList. Its investors cut across HNIs and executives from banks, telcos, among other sectors, each investing a minimum of $10,000. Voltron is similar to a typical seven-figure fund targeting pre-seed and seed-stage startups in Africa, yet it’s quite different in the way it chooses to back founders. The fund remains an embodiment of Soyombo’s investment stance, which is “founders-first regardless of the industry.”

“I’m going to continue backing interesting entrepreneurs. If Odunayo of PiggyVest was building a healthtech or edtech company, I’ll still back that company,” he said, referring to the $1 million investment he made three years ago in one of Nigeria’s widely celebrated fintechs. “So I think the investability of sectors, for me, is driven by quality entrepreneurs that are going to solve problems in that area.”

Early-stage investing needs more work

In 2019, African tech startups raised a record $2 billion, according to Partech Africa. They have raised half that number already this year, and some publications predict these startups will break 2019’s record.

A large chunk of these investments goes into late-stage deals, which is typical of most tech ecosystems globally. But Africa stands out because early-stage startups find it more difficult to raise investments compared to other regions. For instance, IFC reported that 82% of African tech startups cite access to seed funding and a lack of angel investors as major problems they face. Without early-stage funding, many of the startups primed to drive this growth are missing out on vital capital to support their early operations and generate revenue, which is a key requirement for securing later rounds of funding and a larger scale.

Voltron, in its little capacity, wants to fill this gap in the best way it can. Besides listing local investors as LPs, Soyombo says startups will be able to access foreign capital too. Choi is the key to making that happen. Personally, Choi has invested in 15 startups (exiting two); therefore, his experience and network in the U.S. will be crucial in sourcing foreign capital into the continent

Soyombo believes Stripe acquisition of Paystack has made foreign investors take notice of African startups. He humorously references Paul Graham’s tweet after the acquisition as another reason why foreign investors’ interests have also piqued. The tweet from the Y Combinator co-founder read: “Investors who ignore Nigeria now have to ask themselves: What do I know that Patrick Collision doesn’t?”

That said, the investor holds that the pace at which the African tech ecosystem is maturing should excite anyone. The quality of founders on the continent is improving and will continue in that manner because there are more problems to solve, he continued.

“Also, as our startups mature, we’ll see people leaving to set up theirs. We want the next wave of African tech success stories to not only make an impact on the continent but to be truly global; through Abe’s strategic connections to the USA, we’re confident we can provide our portfolio with the best possible opportunities to achieve this through our US and global network.”

China Roundup: Kai-Fu Lee’s first Europe bet, WeRide buys a truck startup

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch’s China Roundup, a digest of recent events shaping the Chinese tech landscape and what they mean to people in the rest of the world.

Despite the geopolitical headwinds for foreign tech firms to enter China, many companies, especially those that find a dependable partner, are still forging ahead. For this week’s roundup, I’m including a conversation I had with Prophesee, a French vision technology startup, which recently got funding from Kai-Fu Lee and Xiaomi, along with the usual news digest.

Spotting opportunities in China

Like many companies working on futuristic, cutting-edge tech in Europe, Prophesee was a spinout from university research labs. Previously, I covered two such companies from Sweden: Imint, which improves smartphone video production through deep learning, and Dirac, an expert in sound optimization.

The three companies have two things in common: They are all in niche fields, and they have all found eager customers in China.

For Prophesee, they are production lines, automakers and smartphone companies in China looking for breakthroughs in perception technology, which will in turn improve how their robots respond to the environment. So it’s unsurprising that Xiaomi and Chinese chip-focused investment firm Inno-Chip backed Prophesee in its latest funding round, which was led by Sinovation Venture.

The funding size was undisclosed but TechCrunch learned it was in the range of “tens of million USD.” It was also the first investment that Kai-Fu Lee has made through Sinovation in Europe. As Prophesee CEO Luca Verre recalled:

I met Dr. Kai-Fu Lee three years ago during the World Economic Forum … and when I pitched to him about Prophesee, he got very intrigued. And then over the past three years, actually, we kept in touch and last year, given the growing traction we were having in China, particularly in the mobile and IoT industry, he decided to jump in. He said okay, it is now the right timing Prophesee becomes big.

The Paris-based company wasn’t actively seeking funding, but it believed having Chinese strategic investors could help it gain greater access to the complex market.

Rather than sending information collected by sensors and cameras to computing platforms, Prophesee fits that process inside a chip (fabricated by Sony) that mimics the human eyes, a technology that is built upon neuromorphic engineering.

The old method snaps a collection of fixed images so when information grows in volume, a tremendous amount of computing power is needed. In contrast, Prophesee’s sensors, which it describes as “event-based,” only pick up changes in the environment just as the photoreceptors in our eyes and can process information continuously and quickly.

Europe has been pioneering neuromorphic computing, but in recent years, Verre saw a surge in research coming from Chinese universities and tech firms, which reaffirmed his confidence in the market’s appetite.

We see Chinese OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), particularly Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo pushing the standard of quality of image quality to very, very high … They are very eager to adopt new technology to further differentiate in a way which is faster and more aggressive than Apple. Apple is a company with an attitude which to me looks more similar to Huawei. So maybe for some technology, it takes more time to see the technology mature and adopt, which is right very often but later. So I’m sure that Apple will come at certain point with some products integrating event-based technology. In fact, we see them moving. We see them filing patents in the space. I’m sure that will come, but maybe not the first.

Though China is striving for technological independence, Verre believed Prophesee’s addressable market is large enough — $20 billion by his estimate. Nonetheless, he admitted he’d be “naive to believe Prophesee will be the only one to capture” this opportunity.

WeRide bought a truck company

One of China’s most valuable robotaxi startups has just acquired an autonomous trucking company called MoonX. The size of the deal is undisclosed, but we know that MoonX raised “tens of millions RMB” 15 months ago in a Series A round.

While WeRide is focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, it is also finding new monetization avenues before its robotaxis can chauffeur people at scale. It’s done so by developing minibusses, and the MoonX acqui-hire, which brings the company’s founder and over 50 engineers to WeRide, will likely help diversify its revenue pool.

WeRide and MoonX have deep-rooted relationships. Their respective founders, Tony Han and Yang Qingxiong, worked side by side at Jingchi, which was later rebranded to WeRide. Han co-founded Jingchi and took the helm as CEO in March 2018 while Yang was assigned vice president of engineering. But Yang soon quit and started MoonX.

Han, a Baidu veteran, gave Yang a warm homecoming and put him in charge of the firm’s research institute and its new office in Shenzhen, home to MoonX. WeRide’s sprawling headquarters is just about an hour’s drive away in the adjacent city of Guangzhou.

AI surveillance giant Cloudwalk nears IPO

Cloudwalk belongs to a cohort of Chinese unicorns that flourished through the second half of the 2010s by selling computer vision technology to government agencies across China. Together, Cloudwalk and its rivals SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu were dubbed the “four AI dragons” for their fast ascending valuations and handsome funding rounds.

Of course, the term “AI dragon” is now a misnomer as AI application becomes so pervasive across industries. Investors soon realized these upstarts need to diversify revenue streams beyond smart city contracts, and they’ve been waiting anxiously for exits. Finally, here comes Cloudwalk, which will likely be the first in its cohort to go public.

Cloudwalk’s application to raise 3.75 billion yuan ($580 million) from an IPO on the Shanghai STAR board was approved this week, though it can still be months before it starts trading. The firm’s financials don’t look particularly rosy for investors, with net loss amounting to 720 million yuan in 2020.

Also in the news

  • Speaking of the torrent of news in autonomous driving, vehicle vision provider CalmCar said this week that it has raised $150 million in a Series C round. Founded by several overseas Chinese returnees in 2016, CalmCar uses deep learning to develop ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) used in automotive, industrial and surveillance scenarios. German auto parts maker ZF led the round.
  • Baby clothes direct-to-consumer brand PatPat said it has raised $510 million from Series C and D rounds. The D2C ecosystem leveraging China’s robust supply chains is increasingly gaining interest from venture capitalists. Brands like Shein, PatPat, Cider and Outer have all secured fundings from established VCs. Founded by three Carnegie Mellon grads, PatPat counts IDG Capital, General Atlantic, DST Global, GGV Capital, SIG China and Sequoia China among its investors.

Pro tips from the team behind Kickstarter’s most funded app

Here at memoryOS, we have a saying we repeat often: “Most of the Kickstarter happens before the actual Kickstarter.”

Preparation is the key. But even if you understand that most of the work is done in advance, you should still prepare yourself for some sleepless nights after the launch date. The usual startup mantra will apply to your crowdfunding campaign just as well: Measure, analyze and adjust along the way.

As you may know, crowdfunding fits some B2C products better than it does others. So to give you our product context here, memoryOS is a gamified app that teaches memorization skills with the help of virtual mind palaces and interactive microlessons taught by our co-founder, two-time World Memory Champion, Jonas von Essen.

Before becoming the most funded app on Kickstarter and getting it 6,400% funded (and carrying it further to the Indiegogo platform right after), we spent countless hours researching down the rabbit hole of crowdfunding tips and tricks. We also had calls with several top-tier crowdfunding project creators who were kind enough to answer our questions and share bits of knowledge from their experience.

We’re sharing our approach (and secrets) to building a successful crowdfunding campaign because we know just how tough it can be to launch your own product. So here is a complete 10-step guide:

Find a unique idea

You should have a unique idea for a product that would solve at least one problem for your target audience. The proven approach is to set two major hypotheses right at the start and then work on getting them tested:

  1. Does your product work and solve the problem as intended, and is it better than what’s out there? This is usually referred to as the “proof of concept” stage.
  2. Are there enough people who are willing to pay for your product for you to build a sustainable business?

You will need to build a base prototype to test the first hypothesis and, if it works, you can then work on turning it into an MVP or a short demo version for your future commercial product. You can then get people to test it for free and prepay for the full version.

Getting people to actually back their interest with their wallet means you already have customers, not merely enthusiasts, and it significantly increases the chances of a successful project.

Yes, it’s important that you get people to pay a minimum reservation deposit at this point and receive their commitment to pay the remaining amount for the full product later on. Getting people to actually back their interest with their wallet means you already have customers, not merely enthusiasts, and it significantly increases the chances of a successful project.

Get user feedback

As soon as you have something to test, conduct short surveys to better understand your customers by gathering and analyzing the reasons why and for what purpose(s) they would want your product.

Here at memoryOS, we called the first couple thousand of our leads and had many insightful conversations to help us connect to our audience on a more personal and emotional level.

Once you have a demo or prototype for the users to test, make sure to add a feedback form right at the end of their experience (or gather feedback using Google Forms for surveys, or via email inquiries).

Mint’s first PM raises millions for Monarch, an Accel-backed money management platform

Monarch, a subscription-based platform that aims to help consumers “plan and manage” their financial lives, has raised $4.8 million in seed funding.

Accel led the round, which also included participation from SignalFire, and brings the Mountain View-based yet fully distributed startup’s total funding since its 2019 inception to $5.5 million.

Co-founder and CEO Val Agostino was the first product manager on the original team that built Mint.com. There, he said, he saw firsthand that Americans with a greater understanding of financial matters “needed software solutions that went beyond just tracking and budgeting.” 

“They needed help planning their financial future and understanding the tradeoffs between competing financial priorities,” he said.

Monarch aims to help people address those needs with software it says “makes it easy” for people to outline their financial goals and then create a detailed, forward-looking plan toward achieving them. 

“We then help customers track their progress against their plan and automatically course correct as their financial situation changes, which it always does,” Agostino said.

Monarch came out of private beta in early 2021 with apps for web, iOS and Android, and is priced at $9.99 per month or $89.99 per year. The startup intentionally opted to not be ad-supported or sell customers’ financial data.

These approaches are “misaligned with users’ financial interests,” Agostino said.

“We felt that a subscription business model would best support that ethos and align our users’ interests with our own,” he added. Since launching publicly, Monarch has been growing its paid subscriber base by about 9% per week.

Image Credits: Monarch

Monarch launched during the pandemic, the uncertainty of which carried over into people’s financial lives, believes Agostino.

“As a result, we saw a lot of people make use of Monarch’s forecasting features to compare different ‘what if ‘scenarios such as switching jobs or moving to a different city or state,” he said.

Earlier this month, TechCrunch reported on a company with a similar mission, BodesWell, teaming up with American Express on a financial planning tool for its cardholders. Agostino said that Monarch is similar to BodesWell in that both startups help customers map a financial plan and future. 

“The difference is that Monarch also has a full suite of PFM tools, such as budgeting, reporting and investment analysis,” he said. “The benefit to the consumer is that because Monarch is connected to your entire financial picture, we can help you actually stay on track with your financial plan and/or update the plan in real time if needed.”

Accel’s Daniel Levine said that until he came across Monarch, he was “somehow still a Mint customer despite its obsolescence.”

Over the past decade, the landscape for financial products has expanded dramatically, with more people having brokerage and crypto accounts, for example, Levine said.

In his view, Monarch stands out for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s a subscription product.

“One thing I always hated about Mint was when it would suggest the objectively wrong credit card for me,” Levine said. “It has all of my transaction data, it should tell me the card with the best rewards for me. Monarch is set up to never compromise what’s best for the user in favor of advertising.”

Secondly, Monarch’s aim is to serve as the infrastructure for its customers. To do that, it needs to monitor all of someone’s finances. 

“They need to track checking, credit cards, brokerage, real estate and crypto,” he said. “Monarch is committed to doing that. It’s an incredibly painful problem and even though Monarch is a new entrant in the space, I think they’ve clearly separated themselves on that dimension.”

Serverless Stack raises $1M for open-source application framework

Open-source framework startup Serverless Stack announced Friday that it raised $1 million in seed funding from a group of investors that includes Greylock Partners, SV Angel and Y Combinator.

The company was founded in 2017 by Jay V and Frank Wang in San Francisco, and they were part of Y Combinator’s 2021 winter batch.

Serverless Stack’s technology enables engineers to more easily build full-stack serverless apps. CEO V said he and Wang were working in this space for years with the aim of exposing it to a broader group of people.

While tooling around in the space, they determined that the ability to build serverless apps was not getting better, so they joined Y Combinator to hone their idea on how to make the process easier.

Here’s how the technology works: The open-source framework allows developers to test and make changes to their applications by directly connecting their local machines to the cloud. The problem with what V called an “old-school process” is that developers would upload their apps to the cloud, wait for it to run and then make any changes. Instead, Serverless Stack connects directly to the cloud for the ability to debug applications locally, he added.

Since its launch six months ago, Serverless Stack has grown to over 2,000 stars on GitHub and was downloaded more than 60,000 times.

Dalton Caldwell, managing director of YC, met V and Wang at the cohort and said he was “super impressed” because the pair were working in the space for a long time.

“These folks are experts — there are probably just half a dozen people who know as much as they do, as there aren’t that many people working on this technology,” Caldwell told TechCrunch. “The proof is in the pudding, and if they can get people to adopt it, like they did on GitHub so far, and keep that community engagement, that is my strongest signal of staying power.”

V has earmarked the new funding to expand the team, including hiring engineers to support new use cases.

Serverless initially gravitated toward specific use cases — APIs are now allowing its community to chime in and it is using that as a guide, V said. It recently announced more of a full-stack use case for building out APIs with a database and also building out the front end frameworks.

Ultimately, V’s roadmap includes building out more tools with a vision of getting Serverless Stack to the point where a developer can come on with an idea and take it all the way to an IPO using his platform.

“That’s why we want the community to drive the roadmap,” V told TechCrunch. “We are focused on what they are building and when they are in production, how they are managing it. Eventually, we will build out a dashboard to make it easier for them to manage all of their applications.”

 

Paystand banks $50M to make B2B payments cashless and with no fees

It’s pretty easy for individuals to send money back and forth, and there are lots of cash apps from which to choose. On the commercial side, however, one business trying to send $100,000 the same way is not as easy.

Paystand wants to change that. The Scotts Valley, California-based company is using cloud technology and the Ethereum blockchain as the engine for its Paystand Bank Network that enables business-to-business payments with zero fees.

The company raised $50 million Series C funding led by NewView Capital, with participation from SoftBank’s SB Opportunity Fund and King River Capital. This brings the company’s total funding to $85 million, Paystand co-founder and CEO Jeremy Almond told TechCrunch.

During the 2008 economic downturn, Almond’s family lost their home. He decided to go back to graduate school and did his thesis on how commercial banking could be better and how digital transformation would be the answer. Gleaning his company vision from the enterprise side, Almond said what Venmo does for consumers, Paystand does for commercial transactions between mid-market and enterprise customers.

“Revenue is the lifeblood of a business, and money has become software, yet everything is in the cloud except for revenue,” he added.

He estimates that almost half of enterprise payments still involve a paper check, while fintech bets heavily on cards that come with 2% to 3% transaction fees, which Almond said is untenable when a business is routinely sending $100,000 invoices. Paystand is charging a flat monthly rate rather than a fee per transaction.

Paystand’s platform. Image Credits: Paystand

On the consumer side, companies like Square and Stripe were among the first wave of companies predominantly focused on accounts payable and then building business process software on top of an existing infrastructure.

Paystand’s view of the world is that the accounts receivables side is harder and why there aren’t many competitors. This is why Paystand is surfing the next wave of fintech, driven by blockchain and decentralized finance, to transform the $125 trillion B2B payment industry by offering an autonomous, cashless and feeless payment network that will be an alternative to cards, Almond said.

Customers using Paystand over a three-year period are able to yield average benefits like 50% savings on the cost of receivables and $850,000 savings on transaction fees. The company is seeing a 200% increase in monthly network payment value and customers grew two-fold in the past year.

The company said it will use the new funding to continue to grow the business by investing in open infrastructure. Specifically, Almond would like to reboot digital finance, starting with B2B payments, and reimagine the entire CFO stack.

“I’ve wanted something like this to exist for 20 years,” Almond said. “Sometimes it is the unsexy areas that can have the biggest impacts.”

As part of the investment, Jazmin Medina, principal at NewView Capital, will join Paystand’s board. She told TechCrunch that while the venture firm is a generalist, it is rooted in fintech and fintech infrastructure.

She also agrees with Almond that the B2B payments space is lagging in terms of innovation and has “strong conviction” in what Almond is doing to help mid-market companies proactively manage their cash needs.

“There is a wide blue ocean of the payment industry, and all of these companies have to be entirely digital to stay competitive,” Medina added. “There is a glaring hole if your revenue is holding you back because you are not digital. That is why the time is now.”

 

Khosla Ventures leads Even’s $5M seed to give India the kind of healthcare their insurance doesn’t

The global pandemic highlighted inefficiencies and inconsistencies in healthcare systems around the world. Even co-founders Mayank Banerjee, Matilde Giglio and Alessandro Ialongo say nowhere is this more evident than in India, especially after the COVID death toll reached 4 million this week.

The Bangalore-based company received a fresh cash infusion of $5 million in seed funding in a round led by Khosla Ventures, with participation from Founders Fund, Lachy Groom and a group of individuals including Palo Alto Networks CEO Nikesh Arora, CRED CEO Kunal Shah, Zerodha founder Nithin Kamath and DST Global partner Tom Stafford.

Even, a healthcare membership company, aims to cover what most insurance companies in the country don’t, including making going to a primary care doctor as easy and accessible as it is in other countries.

Banerjee grew up in India and said the country is similar to the United States in that it has government-run and private hospitals. Where the two differ is that private health insurance is a relatively new concept for India, he told TechCrunch. He estimates that less than 5% of people have it, and even though people are paying for the insurance, it mainly covers accidents and emergencies.

This means that routine primary care consultations, testings and scans outside of that are not covered. And, the policies are so confusing that many people don’t realize they are not covered until it is too late. That has led to people asking doctors to admit them into the hospital so their bills will be covered, Ialongo added.

Banerjee and Giglio were running another startup together when they began to see how complicated health insurance policies were. About 50 million Indians fall below the poverty line each year, and many become unable to pay their healthcare bills, Banerjee said.

They began researching the insurance industry and talking with hospital executives about claims. They found that one of the biggest issues was incentive misalignment — hospitals overcharged and overtreated patients. Instead, Even is taking a similar approach to Kaiser Permanente in that the company will act as a service provider, and therefore, can drive down the cost of care.

Even became operational in February and launched in June. It is gearing up to launch in the fourth quarter of this year with more than 5,000 people on the waitlist so far. Its health membership product will cost around $200 per year for a person aged 18 to 35 and covers everything: unlimited consultations with primary care doctors, diagnostics and scans. The membership will also follow as the person ages, Ialongo said.

The founders intend to use the new funding to build out their operational team, product and integration with hospitals. They are already working with 100 hospitals and secured a partnership with Narayana Hospital to deliver more than 2,000 COVID vaccinations so far, and more in a second round.

“It is going to take a while to scale,” Banerjee said. “For us, in theory, as we get better pricing, we will end up being cheaper than others. We have goals to cover the people the government cannot and find ways to reduce the statistics.”