Avatar startup Genies scores $65 million in funding round led by Mary Meeker’s Bond

Over the past several years, I’ve covered my fair share of upstart avatar companies that were all chasing the same dream — building out a customizable platform for a digital persona that gained wide adoption across games and digital spaces. Few of those startups I’ve covered in the past are still around. But by netting a string of successful partnerships with celebrity musicians, LA-based Genies has come closer than any startup before it to realizing the full vision of a wide-reaching avatar platform.

The company announced today that they’ve closed a $65 million Series B led by Mark Meeker’s firm Bond. NEA, Breyer Capital, Tull Investment Group, NetEase, Dapper Labs and Coinbase Ventures also participated in the deal. Mark Meeker will be joining the Genies board. The company didn’t disclose the Genies’ most recent valuation.

This funding comes at an inflection point for the eight-year-old company, evidenced by the investments from NBA Top Shot-maker Dapper Labs and crypto giant Coinbase. As announced last week, the company is rolling out an NFT platform on Dapper Labs’ Flow blockchain, partnering closely with the startup who will be building out the backend for a Genies avatar accessories storefront. Like Dapper Labs has leveraged its exclusive deals with sports leagues to ship NFTs with official backing, Genies is planning to capitalize on its partnerships with celebrities in its roster including Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B and others to create a platform for buying and trading avatar accessories en masse.

In October, the company announced a brand partnerships with Gucci, opening up the startup to another big market opportunity.

Genies’ business has largely focused on leveraging high-profile partnerships to give its entertainer clients a digital presence that can spice up what they’re sharing on social media and beyond. As they’ve rolled out avatar creation to all users through beta mobile apps, Genies has been focusing on one of the more explicit dreams of the avatar companies before it; building out a broad network of avatar users and a broad network of compatible platforms through its SDK.

“An avatar is a vehicle to be able to showcase more of your authentic self,” Genies CEO Akash Nigam tells TechCrunch. “It’s not limited by real world constraints, it’s an alter-ego personality.”

Trends in the NFT world have provided new realms of exploration for Genies, but so have broader pandemic era trends that have pushed more users to wholly digital spaces where they socialize and connect. “The pandemic accelerated everything,” Nigam says.

Nigam emphasizes that despite the major opportunity its upcoming NFT platform will present, Genies is still an avatar company first-and-foremost, not an NFT startup, though he does say he is believes crypto-backed digital goods are going to be around for a long time. He has few doubts that the current environment around digital goods helped juice Genies’ funding round which he says was “6-8X oversubscribed” and was an opportunistic play for the startup, which “could have gone years without having to raise.”

The company says their crypto marketplace will launch in the coming months, as early as this summer.

Claiming a landmark in fusion energy, TAE Technologies sees commercialization by 2030

In a small industrial park located nearly halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, one company is claiming to have hit a milestone in the development of a new technology for generating power from nuclear fusion.

The twenty year old fusion energy technology developer TAE Technologies said its reactors could be operating at commercial scale by the end of the decade, thanks to its newfound ability to produce stable plasma at temperatures over 50 million degrees (nearly twice as hot as the sun), .

The promise of fusion energy, a near limitless energy source with few emissions and no carbon footprint, has been ten years out for the nearly seventy years since humanity first harnessed the power of nuclear energy.  But a slew of companies including TAE, General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and a host of others across North America and around the world are making rapid advancements that look to bring the technology from the realm of science fiction into the real world.

For TAE Technologies, the achievement serves as a validation of the life’s work of Norman Rostoker, one of the company’s co-founders who had devoted his life to fusion energy research and died before he could see the company he helped create reach its latest milestone.

“This is an incredibly rewarding milestone and an apt tribute to the vision of my late mentor, Norman Rostoker,” said TAE’s current chief executive officer, Michl Binderbauer, in a statement announcing the company’s achievement. “Norman and I wrote a paper in the 1990s theorizing that a certain plasma dominated by highly energetic particles should become increasingly better confined and stable as temperatures increase. We have now been able to demonstrate this plasma behavior with overwhelming evidence. It is a powerful validation of our work over the last three decades, and a very critical milestone for TAE that proves the laws of physics are on our side.”

Rostoker’s legacy lives on inside TAE through the company’s technology platform, called, appropriately, “Norman”. In the last 18 months that technology has demonstrated consistent performance, reaching over 50 million degrees in several hundred test cycles.

Six years ago, the company had proved that its reactor design could sustain plasma indefinitely — meaning that once the switch is flipped on a reaction, that fusion reaction can continue indefinitely. Now, the company said, it has achieved the necessary temperatures to make its reactors commercially viable.

It’s with these milestones behind it that TAE was able to raise an additional $280 million in financing, bringing its total up to $880 million and making it one of the best financed private nuclear fusion endeavors in the world.

“The Norman milestone gives us a high degree of confidence that our unique approach brings fusion within grasp technologically and, more important, economically,” Binderbauer said. “As we shift out of the scientific validation phase into engineering commercial-scale solutions for both our fusion and power management technologies, TAE will become a significant contributor in modernizing the entire energy grid.”

The company isn’t generating energy yet, and won’t for the foreseeable future. The next goal for the company, according to Binderbauer, is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary for making energy from a fusion reaction.

“The energy is super tiny. It’s immaterial. It’s a needle in the haystack,” Binderbauer said. “In terms of its energy discernability, we can use it for diagnostics.”

TAE Technologies Michl Binderbauer standing next to the company’s novel fusion reactor. Image Credit: TAE Technologies

Follow the sun

It took $150 million and five iterations for TAE Technologies to get to Norman, its national laboratory scale fusion device. The company said it conducted over 25,000 fully-integrated fusion reactor core experiments, optimized using machine learning programs developed in collaboration with Google and processing power from the Department of Energy’s INCITE program, which leverages exascale-level computing, TAE Technologies said.

The new machine was first fired up in the summer of 2017. Before it could even be constructed TAE Technologies went through a decade of experimentation to even begin approaching the construction of a physical prototype. By 2008, the first construction began on integrated experiments to make a plasma core and infuse it with some energetic particles. The feeder technology and beams alone cost $100 million, Binderbauer said. Then the company needed to develop other technologies like vacuum conditioning. Power control mechanisms also needed to be put in place to ensure that the company’s 3 megawatt power supply could be stored in enough containment systems to power a 750 megawatt energy reaction.

Finally, machine learning capabilities needed to be tapped from companies like Google and compute power from the Department of Energy had to be harnessed to manage computations that could take what had been the theorems that defined Rostoker’s life’s work, and prove that they could be made real.

“By the time Norman became an operating machine we had four generations of devices preceding it. Out of those there were two fully integrated ones and two generations of incremental machines that could do some of it but not all of it.”

Fusion energy’s burning problems

While fusion has a lot of promise as a zero-carbon source of energy, it’s not without some serious limitations, as Andy Jassby, the former principal physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab noted in a 2017 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article.

Jassby wrote:

Earth-bound fusion reactors that burn neutron-rich isotopes have byproducts that are anything but harmless: Energetic neutron streams comprise 80 percent of the fusion energy output of deuterium-tritium reactions and 35 percent of deuterium-deuterium reactions.

Now, an energy source consisting of 80 percent energetic neutron streams may be the perfect neutron source, but it’s truly bizarre that it would ever be hailed as the ideal electrical energy source. In fact, these neutron streams lead directly to four regrettable problems with nuclear energy: radiation damage to structures; radioactive waste; the need for biological shielding; and the potential for the production of weapons-grade plutonium 239—thus adding to the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, not lessening it, as fusion proponents would have it.

In addition, if fusion reactors are indeed feasible—as assumed here—they would share some of the other serious problems that plague fission reactors, including tritium release, daunting coolant demands, and high operating costs. There will also be additional drawbacks that are unique to fusion devices: the use of a fuel (tritium) that is not found in nature and must be replenished by the reactor itself; and unavoidable on-site power drains that drastically reduce the electric power available for sale.

TAE Technologies is aware of the problems, according to a spokesperson for the firm, and the company has noted the issues Jassby raised in its product development, the spokesperson said.

“All the callouts to tritium is exactly why TAE has been focused on pB-11 as its feedstock from the very beginning (early 90’s).  TAE will reach D-T conditions as a natural stepping stone to pB-11, cause it cooks at ‘only’ 100M c, whereas pB-11 is upwards of 1M c,” the spokesperson wrote in a response. “It would seem like a much harder accomplishment to then scale to 1M, but what this milestone proves is the ‘Scaling law’ for the kind of fusion TAE is generating – in an FRC (the linear design of “Norman”, unlike the donut Tokamaks) the hotter the plasma, the more stable it becomes. It’s the opposite of a [Tokamak].  The milestone gives them scientific confidence they can increase temps beyond DT to pB11 and realize fusion with boron — cheap, aneutronic, abundant — the ideal terrestrial feedstock (let’s not get into mining the moon for helium-3!).”

As for power concerns, the TAE fusion reactor can convert a 2MW grid feed into 750MW shots on the machine without taking down Orange County’s grid (and needing to prove it to SCE), and scale power demand in microseconds to mold and course-correct plasmas in real-time, the spokesperson wrote.

In fact, TAE is going to spin off its power management technology into a separate business focused on peak shaving, energy storage and battery management on the grid and in electric vehicles.

A “safer” fusion technology?

The Hydrogen-Boron, or p-B11, fuel cycle is, according to the company, the most abundant fuel source on earth, and will be the ultimate feedstock for TAE Technologies’ reactor, according to the company. But initially, TAE, like most of the other companies currently developing fusion technologies will be working with Deuterium-Tritium as its fuel source.

The demonstration facility “Copernicus” which will be built using some of the new capital the company has announced raising, will start off on the D-T fuel cycle and eventually make the switch. Over time, TAE hopes to license the D-T technology while building up to its ultimate goal.

Funding the company’s “money by milestone” approach are some fo the world’s wealthiest families, firms, and companies. Vulcan, Venrock, NEA, Wellcome Trust, Google, and the Kuwait Investment Authority are all backers. So too, are the family offices of Addison Fischer, Art Samberg, and Charls Schwab.

“TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs,” said Addison Fischer, TAE Board Director and longtime investor who has been involved with conservation and environmental issues for decades. Fischer also founded VeriSign and is a pioneer in defining and implementing security technology underlying modern electronic commerce. “TAE’s most recent funding positions the company to undertake their penultimate step in implementing sustainable aneutronic nuclear fusion and power management solutions that will benefit the planet.”

Rapid raises $12M for its manufacturing robotics

Bay Area-based Rapid Robotics today announced a $12 million Series A. The new round, led by NEA, brings the company’s total funding up to $17.5 million. It joins a recently closed seed round, announced way back in November of last year. Existing investors Greycroft, Bee Partners and 468 Capital also took part in the round.

We noted at that stage that COVID-19 had a sizable impact on robotics investment. At the very least, the pandemic has served to accelerate interest in automation, as many “non-essential” workers have been unable to travel to their jobs. At present, manufacturing jobs often lack the ability to perform remotely.

Rapid notes that the company’s tech has been involved with the production of some 50 million parts over the past year, over a wide variety of different manufacturing verticals. And, like his predecessor, President Biden has already begun talking up strategies to return manufacturing jobs to the U.S. Of course, ambitious as it might be, any plan is going to have to be a balancing act between human jobs and automation.

The company notes the longstanding issue with human operators in these roles. “If we don’t solve this problem, U.S. manufacturers will never be able to compete in a global market,” CEO Jordan Kretchmer said in a release. “It’s really that simple.”

Rapid’s main value add here is ease of use. The company creates systems designed to get up and running quickly.

Tony Florence, the low-flying head of NEA’s tech practice, on the art of building household brands

Tony Florence isn’t as well known to the public as other top investors like Bill Gurley or Marc Andreessen, but he’s someone who founders with SaaS and especially marketplace e-commerce companies know — or should. He’s responsible for the global tech investing activities for NEA, one of the world’s biggest venture firms in terms of assets under management (it closed its newest fund with $3.6 billion last year).

Florence has also been involved with a long list of e-commerce brands to break through, including Jet, Gilt, Goop, Casper, Letgo, and Moda Operandi.

It’s because we talked earlier this week with one of his newest e-commerce bets, Maisonette, that we wanted to ask him about brand building more than a year into a pandemic that has changed the world in both fleeting and permanent ways. We wound up talking about how customer acquisition has changed; what he thinks of the growing number of companies trying to roll up third-party sellers on Amazon; and how upstarts can maintain momentum when even younger companies become a shiny new fascination for customers.

Note: one topic that he couldn’t and wouldn’t comment on is the future of one famed founder who Florence has backed twice, Marc Lore, who stepped down from Walmart last month to begin building what he recently told Vox is a multi-decade project to build “a city of the future” supported by “a reformed version of capitalism.”

Part of our chat with Florence, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows:

TC: You’ve funded a number of very different businesses that have managed to grow even as Amazon has eaten up more of the retail market. Is there any sector or vertical you wouldn’t back because of the company?

TF: You have to be thoughtful about Amazon. I wouldn’t say there’s one particular area that you either can ignore or feel like you’re completely comfortable and open to, given the scale of their platform. At the same time, there are founding principles and fundamentals that we think about as they relate to companies being able to compete and operate successfully.

TC: And these are what? You’ve backed Marc Lore, Philip Krim (of Casper), Sylvana and Luisana of Maisonette. Do they have something in common?

TF:  Sometimes [founders] come at the problem organically; they’re living it [and want to solve it]. Other times, somebody like Marc sees a business opportunity and just attacks it. But there are commonalities. These are folks who are very customer centric, who are focused on good, fundamental unit economics, and who are obsessive about their people, their teams. It takes a village to build a young successful company, and all of those founders you mentioned are great at recruiting world-class people. There’s a sense of vision and mission and culture.

When you wake up and decide to do something, the majority of people you talk to just want to tell you the reasons why it can’t work, so it also takes a certain [wherewithal] to have such conviction around what you’re doing that you’re kind of all in on it, and you’re going to break through no matter what.

TC: Maisonette was going to open a brick-and-mortar store but put a pin in that plan because of COVID. Will we go back to seeing direct-to-consumer brands opening real-world locations when this is over? Has the pandemic permanently changed that calculation?

TF: Leading up to the pandemic, a lot of the young DTC companies that were direct-to-consumer brands, and even the traditional e-commerce marketplaces, were experimenting with offline. Some of it was out of necessity, frankly. Sometimes [customer acquisition costs] became so expensive that it was actually cheaper for them to go offline. In other cases, it was done because the customer wanted that closed loop experience, as with [mattress maker] Casper.

A lot of companies [opened these stores] in a contained way it worked really well. It’s very accretive financially to the overall business contribution, margin wise. It was accretive for the overall customer experience. And in many cases, it didn’t cannibalize anything. It just expanded the [total addressable market].

We’re spending a lot of time right now continuing to think through what are the permanent changes that are going to come out of the pandemic, but I would say the omnichannel model has really has started to take shape and succeed if you look at big retailers like Walmart and Target, so I think there will be an omnichannel dynamic to many of these companies that we’re talking about. Also, over the last 12 months, the cost of acquisition and the efficacy of marketing has swung back in the favor of these young companies. It’s improved to a point where we don’t really even need to think about offline.

TC: I know it had become expensive to acquire customers digitally because it was so crowded out there. Did it become less crowded?

TF: There were very few platforms that these companies could use pre pandemic that weren’t oversaturated . . . it was just very competitive, and that would bid up the cost of acquisition. In the last 12 months, you’ve seen big parts of that market go away. With airlines and financial services and a lot of the spend going way down, it’s become a lot cheaper for companies to market digitally.

TC: Still, it feels at times that it’s hard to maintain a brand’s momentum over time; there’s always some new outfit nipping at its heels. How does a brand itself fresh and relevant in 2021?

TF: There’s a hits dynamic — a fad dynamic — in the consumer space, so that’s always a challenge. You [compete by] continually reinventing and adding [to your offerings]. You see that in social categories, you see that in marketplaces [where they add] managed services and other components [like] payments, and you clearly see it in the way some of the direct-to-consumer companies continue to add new products to the mix.

You focus on the core aspects of your brand and its mission and vision and make sure that the customers really feel that. There’s a community dynamic that has really occurred the last four or five years around e-commerce companies. Glossier is a great example of a company that built a great community around a core set of product offerings, and that has really propelled that company beyond its core customer customer base.

There’s also a contextual commerce opportunity. Goop is a great example this; Gwyneth [Paltrow] brilliantly came up with [an effective way] to merge content and commerce, and that’s something a lot of companies in the commerce space have started to invest in.

TC: Content, community and not necessarily speed, so focusing on what Amazon does not. Can I ask: do you think Amazon needs to be reigned in?

TF: If you’re competing with them [in the] cloud market or a commerce market, they’re a very formidable competitor, and you got to take them very, very seriously. They’re at a scale that’s just incredibly impressive. But I do think you’re seeing a lot of innovation around the edges and companies finding areas that Amazon maybe can’t focus on or isn’t focusing on.

TC: What do you think of these Amazon Marketplace roll-ups that we’re seeing? There’s been at least a half of dozen of them that already, including Thrasio, which announced $750 million this week. All are raising money hand over first.

TF: We haven’t made an investment in the area, though we’re watching very closely. It can be a very capital intensive strategy to execute on because you’re buying brands and then bringing them onto the platform to consolidate and grow, but there’s just an enormous long tail to the e-commerce space and this is an opportunity to consolidate that.

TC: Like, an infinite opportunity? How many roll-ups can the market support?

TFL I do think that we’ll see a handful of these companies get to decent scale. The question will be whether you’ve got more of an arbitrage going on [by] buying companies and generating synergies or there’s some fundamental bigger breakthrough. If you could use AI [and] machine learning to understand how to better serve customers and think about customer acquisition a little bit better, that would be really interesting. If there are real economies of scale to the supply chains [or] baseline infrastructure, that would certainly be interesting.

It’s early on. It remains to be seen how this is gonna play out.

Pictured above, left to right: NEA’s global managing director, Scott Sandell, and Florence, who is the head of global tech investing activities at NEA and who works alongside Mohamad Makhzoumi, who oversees the firm’s healthcare practice.

Newly funded Maisonette is becoming a go-to brand for fashion-conscious families; here’s how

Maisonette, a four-year-old, New York-based company has aimed from the outset to become a one-stop curated shop for everything a family might need for their young children.

That plan appears to be working. Today, the company — which launched with preppy young children’s apparel and has steadily built out categories that include home decor, home furniture, toys, gear, and accessories — says it doubled its number of customers last year and tripled its revenue. Indeed, even as COVID could have crimped its style — sales of children’s dress-up clothes slowed for a time — its DIY and STEM toy sales shot up 1,400%.

Though the company keeps its sales numbers private, its growth is interesting, particularly given the unabated growth of Amazon, which became the nation’s leading apparel retailer somewhere around the end of 2018.

Seemingly, much of Maisonette’s traction owes to the trust it has built with customers, who see its offerings as high-end yet accessible relative to the many high-end fashion brands that are also increasingly focused on the children’s market, like Gucci and Burberry.

Specifically, the 75-person company has a merchandising team that prides itself on working with independent brands and surfacing items that are hard to find elsewhere.

Maisonette also launched its own apparel line roughly 30 months ago called Maison Me. Focused around “elevated basics” at a more reasonable price point, the line, made in China, is seeing brisk sales to families who buy items time and again as their kids outgrow or wear holes in them, says the company.

It helps that Maisonette’s founders have an eye for what’s chic. Cofounder Sylvana Ward Durrett and Luisana Mendoza Roccia met at Vogue magazine, where Durrett spent 15 years, joining the staff straight from Princeton and becoming its director of events (work that earned her a high profile in fashion circles). Roccia joined straight from Georgetown the same year, 2003, and left as the magazine’s accessories editor in 2008.

For those who might be curious, their former boss, Anna Wintour, is a champion of theirs. Yet they also have some other powerful advocates, including NEA investor Tony Florence, a kind of e-commerce whisperer who has also led previous investments on behalf of his firm in Jet, Goop, and Casper.

NEA is an investor in Maisonette, as is Thrive Capital and the growth-stage venture firm G Squared, which just today announced it led a $30 million round in the company that brings its total funding to $50 million.

Another ally is Marissa Mayer, who first met Durrett back in 2009 when Mayer was still known as Google’s first female engineer its most fashionable executive. Not only has their friendship endured — Mayer says she named one of her twin daughters Sylvana because she adored the name — but Mayer is on the board of Maisonette, where she has presumably helped refine its data strategy, including around an inherent advantage that the company enjoys: its very young customers.

“One of the things that’s really helpful when it comes to data and e-commerce is when you can capture people at a particular life stage,” Mayer explains. “It’s why people liked wedding registries. You get married, then you have children and [the retailer] can follow the children’s ages and start anticipating that customer’s needs and what they’re going to want two years from now.”

In terms of “predictable supply chain, for inventory selection, for just being able to meet that moment, having insight into those stages is really important and helpful,” she says. It can also be very lucrative for Maisonette as it continues to build out its business, notes Mayer,

Certainly, much is working in the company’s favor already. To Mayer’s point, Roccia says that more than half of Maisonette’s sales last year came from repeat customers. More, it already has an audience of more than 800,000 people who either receive emails from the company or follow its social media channels. (Maisonette also features a healthy dose of content at its site.)

Unlike some e-commerce businesses, Maisonette is asset-lite, too. Though it has opened a handful of pop-up stores previously and was contemplating a bigger move into retail (“that’s now on pause,” says Durrett), the company doesn’t have warehouses to manage. Instead, items are shipped directly to customers from the various retailers featured at its site.

Perhaps most meaningful of all, the company is competing in what is a massive and growing market. In the U.S. alone, the children’s apparel market is estimated to be $34 billion. Meanwhile, the children’s market is $630 billion globally. While Maisonette is selling to U.S. customers alone right now, it plans to use some of that new funding to move into international markets, says Roccia, who has been living in Milan with her own four children during the pandemic, while Durrett began working out Maisonette’s mostly empty Brooklyn headquarters in January to create a bit of space from her three.

Indeed, on a Zoom call from their far-flung locations, they talk at length about parents needing to create new space to work from home right now, as well as to update rooms for kids attending virtual school. While no one asked for a global shutdown, home decor is a “category that has picked up due to the Covid effect,” notes Roccia.

Asked what other trends the two are tracking — for example, Maisonette features the mommy-and-me clothing pairings that have become big business in recent years — Roccia says that even with the world shut down, it remains a “huge” trend. “It started with holiday pajamas — that was kind of the catalyst to this whole movement — and now swimwear and just casual dressing has become a pretty big piece of the business, too.”

As for what Durrett has noticed, she laughs. “Llamas are big. We sell a llama music player that we had to bring back on the site several times over the holidays.” Also “rainbows and unicorns. As cliche as it sounds, we literally can’t keep them in stock.”

Unicorns, she adds, “are a thing.”

Newly funded Maisonette is becoming a go-to brand for fashion-conscious families; here’s how

Maisonette, a four-year-old, New York-based company has aimed from the outset to become a one-stop curated shop for everything a family might need for their young children.

That plan appears to be working. Today, the company — which launched with preppy young children’s apparel and has steadily built out categories that include home decor, home furniture, toys, gear, and accessories — says it doubled its number of customers last year and tripled its revenue. Indeed, even as COVID could have crimped its style — sales of children’s dress-up clothes slowed for a time — its DIY and STEM toy sales shot up 1,400%.

Though the company keeps its sales numbers private, its growth is interesting, particularly given the unabated growth of Amazon, which became the nation’s leading apparel retailer somewhere around the end of 2018.

Seemingly, much of Maisonette’s traction owes to the trust it has built with customers, who see its offerings as high-end yet accessible relative to the many high-end fashion brands that are also increasingly focused on the children’s market, like Gucci and Burberry.

Specifically, the 75-person company has a merchandising team that prides itself on working with independent brands and surfacing items that are hard to find elsewhere.

Maisonette also launched its own apparel line roughly 30 months ago called Maison Me. Focused around “elevated basics” at a more reasonable price point, the line, made in China, is seeing brisk sales to families who buy items time and again as their kids outgrow or wear holes in them, says the company.

It helps that Maisonette’s founders have an eye for what’s chic. Cofounder Sylvana Ward Durrett and Luisana Mendoza Roccia met at Vogue magazine, where Durrett spent 15 years, joining the staff straight from Princeton and becoming its director of events (work that earned her a high profile in fashion circles). Roccia joined straight from Georgetown the same year, 2003, and left as the magazine’s accessories editor in 2008.

For those who might be curious, their former boss, Anna Wintour, is a champion of theirs. Yet they also have some other powerful advocates, including NEA investor Tony Florence, a kind of e-commerce whisperer who has also led previous investments on behalf of his firm in Jet, Goop, and Casper.

NEA is an investor in Maisonette, as is Thrive Capital and the growth-stage venture firm G Squared, which just today announced it led a $30 million round in the company that brings its total funding to $50 million.

Another ally is Marissa Mayer, who first met Durrett back in 2009 when Mayer was still known as Google’s first female engineer its most fashionable executive. Not only has their friendship endured — Mayer says she named one of her twin daughters Sylvana because she adored the name — but Mayer is on the board of Maisonette, where she has presumably helped refine its data strategy, including around an inherent advantage that the company enjoys: its very young customers.

“One of the things that’s really helpful when it comes to data and e-commerce is when you can capture people at a particular life stage,” Mayer explains. “It’s why people liked wedding registries. You get married, then you have children and [the retailer] can follow the children’s ages and start anticipating that customer’s needs and what they’re going to want two years from now.”

In terms of “predictable supply chain, for inventory selection, for just being able to meet that moment, having insight into those stages is really important and helpful,” she says. It can also be very lucrative for Maisonette as it continues to build out its business, notes Mayer,

Certainly, much is working in the company’s favor already. To Mayer’s point, Roccia says that more than half of Maisonette’s sales last year came from repeat customers. More, it already has an audience of more than 800,000 people who either receive emails from the company or follow its social media channels. (Maisonette also features a healthy dose of content at its site.)

Unlike some e-commerce businesses, Maisonette is asset-lite, too. Though it has opened a handful of pop-up stores previously and was contemplating a bigger move into retail (“that’s now on pause,” says Durrett), the company doesn’t have warehouses to manage. Instead, items are shipped directly to customers from the various retailers featured at its site.

Perhaps most meaningful of all, the company is competing in what is a massive and growing market. In the U.S. alone, the children’s apparel market is estimated to be $34 billion. Meanwhile, the children’s market is $630 billion globally. While Maisonette is selling to U.S. customers alone right now, it plans to use some of that new funding to move into international markets, says Roccia, who has been living in Milan with her own four children during the pandemic, while Durrett began working out Maisonette’s mostly empty Brooklyn headquarters in January to create a bit of space from her three.

Indeed, on a Zoom call from their far-flung locations, they talk at length about parents needing to create new space to work from home right now, as well as to update rooms for kids attending virtual school. While no one asked for a global shutdown, home decor is a “category that has picked up due to the Covid effect,” notes Roccia.

Asked what other trends the two are tracking — for example, Maisonette features the mommy-and-me clothing pairings that have become big business in recent years — Roccia says that even with the world shut down, it remains a “huge” trend. “It started with holiday pajamas — that was kind of the catalyst to this whole movement — and now swimwear and just casual dressing has become a pretty big piece of the business, too.”

As for what Durrett has noticed, she laughs. “Llamas are big. We sell a llama music player that we had to bring back on the site several times over the holidays.” Also “rainbows and unicorns. As cliche as it sounds, we literally can’t keep them in stock.”

Unicorns, she adds, “are a thing.”

A former NEA partner and a former Uber exec just closed their $140 million debut VC fund

In hindsight, Dayna Grayson and Rachel Holt seemingly didn’t have the best timing. It was late in 2019 when the two, who met six years ago in Washington through a mutual acquaintance, decided to act on earlier conversations and start a fund together.

At the time, Grayson spied an opportunity to create a new venture brand that focused largely on the types of manufacturing-related deals that she was funding inside of the investing giant, NEA, which she joined in 2012.

Holt, who’d joined Uber in 2011, rising from a city general manager in Washington to the eventual head of the company’s mobility unit in 2018, was also ready for a change and excited about the prospect of investing full time, having been brought into NEA by Grayson to scout out nascent deals on the side.

“Of course, we didn’t expect COVID,” Holt says now. Still, it didn’t stop them from moving forward with fundraising and, in the process, securing $140 million in capital commitments from what Holt describes as “the typical kind of institutional LP base, including endowments, foundations,” and also some peers, including Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures, Josh Kopelman of First Round, and Grayson’s former NEA colleague, Scott Sandell.

Construct, which is focused primarily on five themes —  decentralized manufacturing, supply chain visibility, automation, transportation and mobility — is already actively writing checks, in fact. Among the companies they have backed are Chef Robotics, a startup focused on assembling food at high throughput; Copia, a food waste management platform that connects businesses that have leftover food with organizations that feed the hungry; and ChargeLab, a maker of electric vehicle charging software that Holt likens to the “Android of the charging market.”

To get a better sense of the types of startups that might be ideal for the firm going forward, we talked earlier with the pair, who recently signed a lease in the nation’s capital for their team (Construct also has two junior investors), and who were working together today from Grayson’s home.

Parts of that conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: Rachel, what startups did you identify for NEA and how do they fit into your point of view as an investor?

RH: I was always attracted to business solving real-world problems, so among the investments [I made as a scout for] NEA is an auto-refinancing company called MotoRefi because that was a problem I saw firsthand, talking with Uber drivers. I’m still on the board of that company.

But Dana and I have both been attracted to what we called foundational industries. I saw [opportunities] on the transportation side, on the supply chain side on the logistics side [at Uber]. When we were running Jump [as part of the mobility unit of Uber], we were building an e-bike, which is actually a pretty complicated piece of equipment to pull together, and you would see that something had left a factory in China, then you would lose track of it for five weeks, then you would see that it entered a port in the U.S., and then you would lose track of it again and I knew there had to be a better way . . . and I think COVID only highlights the urgency around some of the cracks in the system.

TC: Right. I think we’ve all been stunned by the supply chain issues as they related to the vaccines and PPE, certainly. Are you focused on global supply chain opportunities or just domestically?

DG: We’re primarily focused domestically. We will do investments in Canada and occasionally in Europe. We would [invest in] Asia without some more dedicated personnel there, and that’s not in the scope right now.

What we’ve seen in COVID is just a huge acceleration of consumer demand, so if you’re a brand or an e-tailor and you were planning all these upgrades to meet that demand two years from now, that’s happening today, so it’s really put a crunch on the system. Companies like [the e-commerce optimization startup] Tradeswell, brings data visibility across the supply chain, from where sales are happening online to how they’re being fulfilled in inventory. That’s something that analysts and agencies could help you do, but when you’re looking at just the crunch of having to have that real time urgency and information at your fingertips, you can’t wait for human intervention anymore. You have to you have to automate.

TC: You invested in Tradeswell’s seed round and its Series A. Will that be typical going forward? Relatedly, what size checks will you be writing and how much ownership will you be targeting when you invest in a company?

RH: Our typical size is $2 million to $6 million checks. We like to lead those those rounds, but they can be part of a round that goes up to, say, $12 million.

DG: As for ownership, something is reasonable is close to 15%. We’re not going to have a huge portfolio. Every company really matters to the fund I think something, you know, reasonable sort of is close to 15% as we can. I mean, we’d like to be. I think the point that we like to emphasize is that we’re not gonna have a huge portfolio. Every company really matters to the fund, every company receives dedicated time and attention from us, there isn’t a cookie cutter approach where if you work with Construct, you get X. It depends on the entrepreneur and what they need.

TC: How important are board seats to you both?

RH: What’s more important to us is meeting the company where they are and understanding what does the entrepreneur need and how can we add value.

TC: You’re in Washington. As investors who focus on what you do, is there any special advantage to being there?

DG: We’re investing nationally. If we find great projects here, we’d love to be involved with them, but of our first investments, two are in the Bay Area and two are on the East Coast.

RH: Dana [had been operating remotely at times before COVID] and I was running teams in the U.S and Canada [at Uber]. We don’t have a backyard bias.

TC: So you’re likely to do more remotely, even after the world returns to normal.

DG: I definitely think some things are here to stay, and that it’s great for founders. Their ability to engage investors over Zoom, whether they’re down the street or across the globe, is really in their interest and I’m glad to see a more efficient fundraise happen for a lot of them.

RH: I think for entrepreneurs, trying to find the best fit for what they are building, versus just who is the person they know because they run into them at the gym, is a big net positive [to come out of this whole thing]. It also enables them to build companies in the place where they’re best-suited to build the company, rather than indexing for where they’ll be seen from a funding perspective.

For a fuller look at what the team is building, you can check out their blog post here.

Sales readiness platform MindTickle raises $100 million led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2

MindTickle, a startup that is helping hundreds of small and large firms improve their sales through its eponymous sales readiness platform, said on Monday it has raised $100 million in a new financing round.

The Pune and San Francisco-headquartered startup’s new financing round was led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2. The round is a combination of debt and equity, the startup said. Existing investors Norwest Venture Partners, Accel Partners, Canaan, NEA, NewView Capital, and Qualcomm Ventures also participated in the round, which according to a person familiar with the matter, valued the eight-year-old startup at roughly $500 million, up from about $250 million last year.

The vast majority of this $100 million fund is equity investment, said Krishna Depura, co-founder and chief executive of MindTickle, in an interview with TechCrunch. He declined to disclose the specific amount, however, or comment on the valuation.

We used to live in a seller’s world, where buyers had a small selection of choices from which they could pick their products. “You wanted to buy a car, there would be only one new car model every four years. Things have changed,” said Depura, noting that customers today have no shortage of companies trying to sell them similar lines of products.

While that’s great for customers, it means that companies have to put more effort to make a sale. A decade ago, as Depura watched Facebook and gaming firms like Zynga develop addictive products and services, he wondered if some of these learnings could be baked directly into modern age sales efforts.

That was the inception of MindTickle, which now helps companies guide their customer-facing teams. Regardless of what these firms are attempting to sell, they are competing with dozens of firms, if not more, and customers have ever-so-declining patience to hear them.

MindTickle, whose name is inspired from the idea of gamifying mindsets, allows companies to train and upskill their salespeople at scale, and uses role playing methods to help them practice their pitch, and how to handle a customer’s queries.

Depura said the platform helps salespeople measure their improvement in revenue metrics and offers feedback on the calls they made. The platform utilizes machine learning engines to serve personalized remediations and reinforcements to salespeople, he said.

More than 200 enterprises, including more than 40 of the Fortune 500 and Forbes Global 2000 firms, are among MindTickle’s clients today — though, citing confidential agreements, the firm said it can’t disclose several names. Some of the names it did share include MongoDB, Nutanix, Qualtrics, Procore, Square, Janssen, Cloudera, Dexcom, Merck & Co., and Benetton Group.

As of this writing, MindTickle is ranked as the top product for enterprises and fifth best product for sales on G2, a popular marketplace for software and services.

MindTickle has seen a surge in its customer base and usage in recent months as firms shut offices and moved work to remote platforms to avoid their exposure to the coronavirus, said Depura. “Today, our platform is being used in ways we had not even envisioned,” he said.

“MindTickle’s track record of growth, quality of product and marquee customer base highlights their strengths,” said Sumer Juneja, Partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “By delivering engaging and personalized training to users, MindTickle is uniquely placed to support businesses to increase revenue generation and extend critical capabilities within their existing workforce.” The Japanese investment group, which began conversations with MindTickle about three months ago, is exploring more investments in SaaS categories.

The new funding capital will allow MindTickle, which employs about 400 people in the U.S., Europe, and India, to further establish this new category, said Depura. The startup is developing new product features and will deploy the new funds to further grow in Europe, and the U.S., which is already one of its key markets.

More to follow…

A must-see conversation on the state of VC, this year at Disrupt

On a surface level, the world of venture capital doesn’t look to change much year to year. But in truth, the industry is very much in flux, with many firms grappling with a lack of diversity, dealing with succession questions, and confronting a growing pipeline of aging portfolio companies — to name just a few of the issues of the day.

In fact, one of the biggest shifts in the industry — one that’s years in the making but with no end in sight — is its atomization. Once a clubby industry, the landscape today sees new players, backed up by real dollars, every day, all over the world.

Indeed, at this year’s Disrupt, we’re very excited to be sitting down with three venture investors who spent much of their careers with powerful outfits before more recently — and boldly — striking out on their own to build their own brands.

It’s with their help that we’re going to take stock of many of the trends roiling the industry right now.

Lo Toney was a VP at Cake Financial, a general manager with Zynga, and the CEO of an online coding startup before jumping into the world of venture capital, first at Comcast Ventures and later at GV where he spent several years as a partner.

If he was tempted to stay with Alphabet’s influential venture arm, he didn’t, instead turning his work at GV — which centered increasingly on finding and funding promising and diverse fund managers and startups — into the opportunity to create his own shop. Now, Plexo Capital not only counts Alphabet among its biggest financial backers, but it has amassed stakes in roughly two dozen funds and many more startups. With most of them run exclusively or in part by people of color, Toney has also become a leading light for others who recognize diversity as a competitive advantage.

Then there’s Renata Quintini, who has spent the last year quietly building a new outfit, Renegade Partners, with cofounder Roseanne Wincek. Wincek previously worked at the venture giant IVP. Quintini, similarly, has held a number of investing roles at esteemed institutions. Among them is the Stanford Management Company, where she was an investment manager focused on VC and private equity investments, and Felicis Ventures, where as a general partner she worked with a wide number of rising stars, including the satellite company Planet, the self-driving startup Cruise Automation (now owned by GM), Dollar Shave Club (which sold to Unilever), and Bonobos (snapped up by Walmart).

It wasn’t a surprise when Lux Capital poached Quintini, in fact. But even Lux, which prides itself on the kind of deep science expertise that Quintini shares, couldn’t keep her from leaving to create something all her own.

The story isn’t so dissimilar for Dayna Grayson, who studied systems engineering and worked in product design before jumping into the world of venture capital, first as a principal with the Boston-based firm Northbridge Venture Partners and afterward, as a partner with the venture giant NEA.

There, based in Washington, D.C., Grayson led a wide number of deals for the firm, including in the metal 3D printing company Desktop Metal —  a five-year-old company that, absent an unforeseen development, is soon to be a publicly traded and valued in the multiple billions of dollars.

Undoubtedly Grayson could have stayed longer. Instead, nearly eight years into her career with NEA, she left late last year to cofound the early-stage venture firm Construct Capital with Rachel Holt, one of Uber’s first employees.

There is so much to talk about with these entrepreneurial investors, from how they compete against the heavyweights, to how they think about startups in a post COVID world, to whether or not there VCs have begun to over-index on business-facing investments to their own detriment — or if, conversely that opportunity remains limitless right now. That’s saying nothing about SPACs, rolling funds, and the latest twist in direct listings.

You definitely won’t want to miss this very timely conversation about the state of VC.

Disrupt 2020 runs from September 14 through September 18 and will be 100% virtual this year. Get your front row seat to see Grayson, Quintini and Toney live with a Disrupt Digital Pro Pass or a Digital Startup Alley Exhibitor Package. We’re excited to see you there.

Omio takes $100M to shuttle through the coronavirus crisis

Multimodal travel platform Omio (formerly GoEuro) has raised $100M in late stage funding to help see its business through the coronavirus crisis. It also says it’s eyeing potential M&A opportunities within the hard-hit sector.

New and existing investors in the Berlin -based startup participated in the late stage convertible note, although omio isn’t disclosing any new names. Among the list of returning investors are: Temasek, Kinnevik, Goldman Sachs, NEA and Kleiner Perkins. Omio’s business has now pulled in around $400M in total since being founded back in 2013 — with the prior raise being a $150M round back in 2018.

In a supporting statement on the latest raise, Georgi Ganev, CEO of Kinnevik, said: “We are very impressed how fast and effective Omio adapted to such an unprecedented crisis for the global travel industry. The management team has delivered quickly and we can see the robustness of the business model which is well diversified across markets and transport modes. We are looking forward to supporting Omio on its way to become the go-to destination for travellers across the world.”

While COVID-19 has thrown up major headwinds to global tourism and travel — with foreign trips discouraged by specific government quarantine requirements, and the overarching requirement for people to maintain social distancing meaning certain types of holidays or activities are less attractive or even feasible, Omio is nonetheless sounding upbeat — reporting a partial recovery in bookings this summer in Europe.

In Germany and France it says bookings are above 50% of the pre-COVID-19 level at this point, despite only “marginal” marketing spend over the crisis period.

Its business is likely better positioned than some in the travel space to adapt to changes in how people are moving around and holidaying, given it caters to multiple modes of transport. The travel aggregator platform spans flights, rail, buses and even ferry routes, allowing users to quickly compare different modes of transport for their planned journey.

More recently Omio has added car sharing and car rentals to its platform, including via a partnership with rentalcars.com. So as travellers in Europe have adapted to living with COVID-19 — perhaps opting to take more local trips and/or avoiding mass transit when they go on holiday — it’s in a strong position to cater to changing demand through its partnerships with ground transportation networks and providers.

“That diversification in terms of not depending on a single mode of transport has really helped the business come back much stronger, because we’re not depending on — for example — air or bus,” CEO and founder Naren Shaam tells TechCrunch. “The diversification has helped us.”

“People will travel a lot more to smaller regions, explore the countryside a little more,” he predicts, suggesting the current dilution of travel focus it’s seeing — away from usual tourist hotspot destinations in favor of a broader, more rural mix of places — augurs a wider shift to more a diversified, more sustainable type of travel being here to stay.

“It’s not longer just airport to airport travel,” he notes. “People are traveling to where they want to go — and it’s a lot more distributed across geographies, where people want to explore. A platform like ours can accelerate this behaviour because we serve, not just flights, but trains, buses, even ferries etc, you can actually reach any destination with us.”

Direct booking via Omio’s platform is possible where it has partner agreements in place (so not universally across all routes, though it may still be able to offer route planning info).

Its multimodal booking mix extends to 37 countries in Europe and North America — where it launched at the start of this year. Last year it acquired Rome2Rio, bulking out its global flight and transport planning inventory. The grand vision is “all transport, end to end, in a single product”, as Shaam puts it — although executing on that means continuing to build out partnerships and integrations across its market footprint. 

Asked whether the new funding will give Omio enough headroom to see it through the current coronavirus crisis, Shaam tells TechCrunch: “The unknown unknown is how long the crisis lasts. But as we can see if the crisis lasts a couple of years we will make it through that.”

He says the raise will help the business come out of the crisis “stronger” — by enabling Omio to spend on adapting its product to meet changing consumer demand, such as the shift to ground transportation. “All of those things we can use these capital to shape the future of how the travel industry actually interacts with consumers,” he suggests.

Another shift in the industry that’s been triggered by the coronavirus relates to consumer expectations around information. In short, people expect a lot more travel intel up front.

“We have hypotheses on what comes back [post-crisis]. I think travel will be a lot more information centric, especially coming out of COVID-19. Customers will seek clarity in the near term around basic information around what regions can I travel to, do I need to quarantine, do I need to wear a mask inside the train etc,” he says.

“But that’ll drive a type of consumer behavior where they are seeking more information and companies will need to provide this information to satisfy the consumer needs of the future. Because consumers are getting used to having relevant information at the right point in time. So it’s not a data dump of all information… it’s when I get to the train station, what do I need to do?

“Each of those is almost hyperlocal in terms of information and that’s going to drive a change in consumer behaviour.”

Omio’s initial response to this need for more information up front was the launch of a hub — called the Open Travel Index — where users can look up information on restrictions related to specific destinations to help them plan their journey.

However he admits it’s a struggle to keep up with requirements that can switch over night (in one recent example, the UK added France to a list of countries from which returning travellers must self quarantine for two weeks — leading to a mad dash by scores of holidaymakers trying to beat a 4am deadline to get back on UK soil).

“This is a product we launched about a month and a half ago that tells you, if you’re based in the UK, where you can go in Europe,” he says. “We need to update it faster because information’s changing very, very quickly — so it’s on us now to figure out how to keep up with the constant changes of information.”

Discussing other COVID-19 changes, Shaam points to the shift to apps that’s being accelerated by the public health crisis — a trend that’s being replicated in multiple industries of course, not just travel.

“More than half of the ground transport industry was booked at a kiosk at a station [before COVID-19]. So this will drive a clear change with people uncomfortable touching a kiosk button,” he adds, arguing that that shift will help create better consumer products in the sector.

“If you imagine the kind of consumer products that the app/web world has created you can imagine that should come to the consumer experiences in travel,” he suggests. “So these are the things, I think, that will come in terms of consumer behavior and it’s up to us to make sure that we lead that change as a company.”

“We’re investing quite heavily in some of the other shifts that we’re seeing — in terms of days to departure, flexibility of fares, more insurance type products so you can cancel,” he adds. “We’re also trying to help customers in terms of whether they can go.

“We’re investing heavily in routing so you can connect modes of transport, not just flights, so you can travel longer distances with just trains. And we’re also in talks with all our suppliers to say hey, how can we help you come back — because not all suppliers are state monopolies. There’s a lot of small, medium suppliers on our product and we want to bring them back as well so we’re investing there as well.”

On M&A, Shaam says growth via acquisition is “definitely on the radar for us”. Though he also says it’s not top of the priority list right now.

“We’ve actively got our ears out. More so now, going forward, than looking back — because the last four months, imagine what we went through as a travel company, I just wanted to stablize that situation and bring us to a stable position,” he says.

“We are still in COVID-19. The situation’s not yet over, so our primary goal coming out of this is very much investing in the shifts in consumer behavior in our core product… Any M&A acquisitions we’ll do is more opportunistic, based on [factors like] pricing and what’s happening in the industry.

“But more of our capital and my time and everything will go a lot more to build the future of transport. Because that’s going to change so much more for so many millions of consumers that use our product today.”

There is still plenty of work that can be done on Omio’s core proposition — aka, linking up natural travel search for consumers by knitting together a diverse mix and range of service providers in a way that shrinks the strain of travel planning, and building out support for even more multifaceted trips people might wish to take in future.

“No one brings the natural search for consumers. Consumers just want to go London to Portsmouth. They don’t say ‘London Portsmouth train’. They do that today because that’s what the industry forces them to do — so by enabling this core product to work where you can search any modes of transport, anywhere in Europe, one click to buy, everything is a simple, mobile ticket, and you use the whole product on the app — that’s the big driver for the industry,” Shaam adds.

“On top of that you’ve got shifts towards ground transport, shifts towards app, shifts towards sustainability, which is a big topic — even pre-COVID-19 — that we can actually help drive even more change coming out of this. These are the bigger opportunities for us.”

Uncertainty clearly remains a constant for the travel sector now that COVID-19 has become a terrible ‘new normal’. So even with an unexpected summer travel bump in Europe it remains to be seen what will happen in the coming months as the region moves from summer to winter.

“In general the overall business outlook we’re taking is purely something of more caution,” says Shaam. “We just don’t know. Anything at all with respect to COVID-19, no one knows, basically. I’ve seen a number of reports in the industry but no one really knows. So in general our outlook is one of caution. And that’s why we were surprised in our uptick already through the summer. We didn’t even expect that kind of growth with near zero marketing spend levels.”

“We’ll adapt,” he adds. “The business is high variable costs so we can scale up and down fairly easily, so it’s asset light and these things help us adapt. And let’s see what happens in the winter.”

Over in the US — where Omio happened to launch slightly ahead of the COVID-19 crisis — he says it’s been a very different story, with no bookings bump. “No surprise, given the situation there,” he says, emphasizing the importance of government interventions to help control the spread of the virus.

“Governments play a very important role here. Europe has done a superior job compared to a lot of other regions in the world… But entire economies [in the region] depend on tourism,” he says. “Hopefully entire [European] countries shouldn’t go into shutdowns again because the systems are strong enough to identify local spike in cases and they ring fence it very quickly and can act on it. It’s the same as us as a company. If there’s a second wave we know how to react because we’ve gone through this horrible phrase one… So using those learnings and applying them quickly I think will help stabilize the industry as a whole.”