Early-stage venture firm The Fund launches in Australia

A group photo of The Fund Australia’s team (left to right): Elicia McDonald, Adrian Petersen, Georgia Vidler, Ed Taylor and Todd Deacon

The Fund Australia’s team (l to r): Elicia McDonald, Adrian Petersen, Georgia Vidler, Ed Taylor and Todd Deacon

The Fund, the early-stage investment firm focused on pre-seed and seed startups, is going Down Under for its latest expansion. The Fund was founded in New York in 2018, before launching in Los Angeles, London, the Rockies and the Midwest, too.

Co-founder Jenny Fielding, who is also managing director at Techstars New York, said The Fund decides on new areas for expansion based on demand from the local startup ecosystem, and earlier this year, it heard from a group of founders and operators who wanted to launch it in Australia, too.

In addition to participating in first check rounds, The Fund also builds communities of founders and other leaders from successful startups, who not only provide mentorship, but also capital as limited partners. The Fund now has a network of about 400 founders and has made around 120 investments across its funds.

In each of its regions, The Fund is led by an investment committee of four people. In Australia, they are: Techstars managing director Todd Deacon; venture firm AirTree principal Elicia McDonald; AfterWorks Ventures co-founder Adrian Petersen; and former Canva head of product Georgia Vidler. There will be 50 people in The Fund Australia’s limited partner base, including founders of startups like Culture Amp’s Rod Hamilton, Linktree’s Alex Zaccaria, Adore Beauty’s Kate Morris, and leaders from Canva and Safety Culture, too. The Fund Australia’s LPs will help source promising startups from their networks, and refer them to the investment committee for review.

The Fund is targeting $3.5 million USD and will invest in about 40 startups, writing check sizes of $50,000 to $100,000 USD over 24 months. Limited partners and other members of its community around the world will provide guidance as portfolio companies grow.

Deacon told TechCrunch that The Fund Australia’s focus on very early-stage startups is important because of the growing pre-seed/seed funding gap. He points to a report by StartupAus, an advocacy group for Australian startups, that angel and seed investment in Australia has fallen over the past few years, both in terms of number of deals and aggregate value.

The Fund’s hypothesis is that many early-stage funds, in Australia and other parts of the world, shift their focus to later stages as they raise larger funds, Deacon added. This happened in New York City, too, and was one of the contributing drivers for the creation of The Fund in the first place.

“There’s been this gap in early-stage funding. There’s those two points of building a really strong community—helping founders and then the funding gap, which we can help to solve to a certain degree. We’re bringing in checks in the early stage with a lot of power in providing founders access to that network,” he said.

Writing early checks lets The Fund see deal flow before other venture firms and limited partners, and small check sizes gives it an advantage with startups.

“We don’t take a huge proportion of their raise, yet we come with really high quality capital,” said Deacon. “We’ve got that investor network. For why some of our [LPs] are interested, it’s to generate a return, but they also want to give back and make Australia and New Zealand companies prosper.”

Being able to tap into The Fund’s international network is helpful for startups in Australia, where many companies eye international expansion from the start.

Australian unicorns like Atlassian and Canva are also helping strengthen Australia’s startup ecosystem, said Vidler. “It feels like an inflection point for me in the startup ecosystem, where now there’s all these original founders and a community of senior operators who are keen to give back and create and bolster the ecosystem here.”

The Fund Australia is sector agnostic and wants to create a diverse portfolio. The Fund has focused on gender parity since the start. Each region’s investment committee is comprised of two men and two women, about half of its LPs are women and over 40% of its total capital has gone to female founders. Vidler says this was a major draw for her.

“The pull for me, and I think for a big part of the network in Australia, and a lot of women in tech in Australia, is that they’re going to be super interested in investing in the next generation of female founders as well,” she said.

Australian ID verification startup OCR Labs raises $15M Series A to expand into UK/Turkey/Europe

With the gig economy came the need for ID verification, thus startups like OnFido (raised $188.8 million) appeared, alongside several others. But this sector is by no means ‘done’ yet.

Now, OCR Labs, which emerged from Australia, has announced a €12.5M / $15 million Series A funding round led by Turkish investors Oyak Group, to expand its services and team to the UK, Turkey and Europe. Halkin Ventures invested in its seed round. The startup specializes in digital ID verification, customer onboarding, identity fraud, and regulatory compliance.

OCR Labs, founded in 2018 by Daniel Aiello and Matthew Adams, says its technology uses “five proprietary technologies in one solution, including identity document optical character recognition (OCR), document fraud assessment, liveness detection, video fraud assessment, and face matching”. This supports AML and KYC regulations.

Daniel Aiello, Co-Founder, and CPO of OCR Labs, commented, “The need for digital verification is growing exponentially. This past year we’ve seen more demand from new sectors as they try to navigate the pandemic and an inability to operate in person…No one wants to spend hours trying to prove who they are, whether it’s for a job or for a bank account, and we also want to know we’re protected against identity theft and fraud. Digital ID verification has a key role to play, but this year we’ve also seen the limitations if hybrid models are used. People are a barrier and a risk, but fully automated technology can have a huge impact on many industries and privacy. OCR Labs is built to be secure, frictionless and fast, and capable of recognizing ID documents the world over.”

OCR Labs is used by recruitment business REED in the UK. Russ Cohn, an early member of the Google UK leadership team, has been appointed OCR’s General Manager of International Operations, based out of London.

Cohn commented: “The technology that Matt and Dan have created is completely automated, so it doesn’t rely on any humans behind the scenes. That’s very key at the moment. We’ve seen how COVID has impacted having that hybrid solution, so automation increases the speed and delivery of the technology to our users… A lot of competitors outsource and use different vendors to put together a solution.”

Endua creates hydrogen-powered clean energy storage, using tech from Australia’s national science agency

Hydrogen-based generators are an environmentally-friendly alternative to ones powered by diesel fuel. But many rely on solar, hydro or wind power, which aren’t available all the time. Brisbane-based Endua is making hydrogen-based power generators more accessible by using electrolysis to create more hydrogen and storing it for long-term use. The startup’s technology was developed at CSIRO, Australian’s national science agency, and is being commercialized by Main Sequence, the venture fund founded by CSIRO and Ampol, one of the country’s largest fuel companies.

Main Sequence’s venture science model means that it first identifies a global challenge, then brings together the technology, team and investors to launch a startup that can address that problem. Through the program, Paul Sernia, the founder of electric vehicle charger maker Tritium, was brought on to serve as Endua’s chief executive officer, working with Main Sequence partner Martin Duursma to commercialize the hydrogen-based power generation and storage technology developed at CSIRO. Ampol will serve as Endua’s industry partner.

Endua is backed by $5 million AUD (about $3.9 million USD) from Main Sequence, CSIRO and Ampol. The company plans to launch in Australia first before expanding into other countries.

Sernia told TechCrunch that Endua was created to “solve one of the biggest problems facing the transition to renewable energy—how to store renewable energy in large quantities, for long periods of time.”

Endua’s modular power banks can run up to 150 kilowatts per pack and be extended for different use cases, serving as an alternative to power generators that run on diesel fuel. Batteries serve as backup, but Endua’s goal is to deliver renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, enabling off-grid infrastructure and communities to have self-sustaining power sources.

“Hydrogen electrolysis technology has been around for quite some time but it still has a long way to go to meet the expectations of commercial markets and be cost-effective when compared to existing energy sources,” Sernia said. “The technology we’ve developed with CSIRO enables us to make the cost more affordable compared to fossil fuel sources, more reliable and easily maintained in remote communities.”

The startup plans to focus on industrial clients before reaching smaller businesses and residences. “One of the biggest opportunities, that few have really tackled, is that of diesel generator users like regional communities, mines or remote infrastructure,” Sernia said. “In farming, Endua’s solution could be used to power equipment such as a bore or irrigation pumps.” The power banks can plug into existing renewable energy systems, including solar and wind, to make the switch economical for users, he added. Water is part of the electrolysis process, but only a small amount is needed.

“Batteries are a great way to deliver dispatchable power in small increments and are a complementary part of the overall transition plan, but we’re focusing on delivering renewable energy that can be stored in large quantities, for large periods of time, so communities and remote infrastructure can access reliable, renewable energy at any time of day,” Sernia told TechCrunch.

Ampol is working with Endua as part of its Future Energy and Decarbonisation Strategy. It will test and commercialize Endua’s tech to reach its 80,000 B2B customers, focusing first on the off-grid diesel generator market, which the company said generates 200,000 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

In press statement, Ampol managing director and CEO Matthew Halliday said, “We are excited to be involved with Endua, which is part of our commitment to extending our customer value proposition by finding and developing new energy solutions that will assist with their energy transition.”

In latest big tech antitrust push, Germany’s FCO eyes Google News Showcase fine print

The Bundeskartellamt, Germany’s very active competition authority, isn’t letting the grass grow under new powers it gained this year to tackle big tech: The Federal Cartel Office (FCO) has just announced a third proceeding against Google.

The FCO’s latest competition probe looks very interesting as it’s targeting Google News Showcase — Google’s relatively recently launched product which curates a selection of third party publishers’ content to appear in story panels on Google News (and other Google properties), content for which the tech giant pays a licensing fee.

Google started cutting content licensing deals with publishers around the world for News Showcase last year, announcing a total pot of $1BN to fund the arrangements — with Germany one of the first markets where it inked deals.

However its motivation to pay publishers to licence their journalism is hardly pure.

It follows years of bitter accusations from media companies that Google is freeloading off their content. To which the tech giant routinely responded with stonewalling statements — saying it would never pay for content because that’s not how online aggregation works. It also tried to fob off the industry with a digital innovation fund (aka Google News Initiative) which distributes small grants and offers free workshops and product advice, seeking to frame publishers’ decimated business models as a failure of innovation, leaving Google’s adtech machine scot free to steamroller on.

Google’s stonewalling-plus-chicken-feeding approach worked to stave off regulatory action for a long time but eventually enough political pressure built up around the issue of media business models vs the online advertising duopoly that legislators started to make moves to try to address the power imbalance between traditional publishers and intermediating tech giants.

Most infamously in Australia, where lawmakers passed a news media bargaining code earlier this year.

Prior to its passage, both Facebook and Google, the twin targets for that law, warned the move could result in dire consequences — such as a total shut down of their products, reduced quality or even fees to use their services.

Nothing like that happened but lawmakers did agree to a last minute amendment — adding a two-month mediation period to the legislation which allows digital platforms and publishers to strike deals on their own before having to enter into forced arbitration.

Critics say that allows for the two tech giants to continue to set their own terms when dealmaking with publishers, leveraging market muscle to strike deals that may disproportionately benefit Australia’s largest media firms — and doing so without any external oversight and with no guarantees that the resulting content arrangements foster media diversity and plurality or even support quality journalism.

In the EU, lawmakers acted earlier — taking the controversial route of extending copyright to cover snippets of news content back in 2019.

Following on, France was among the first EU countries to transpose the provision into national law — and its competition watchdog quickly ordered Google to pay for news reuse back in 2020 after Google tried to wiggle out of the legislation by stopping displaying snippets in the market.

It responded to the competition authority’s order with more obfuscation, though, agreeing earlier this year to pay French publishers for linking to their content but also for their participation in News Showcase — bundling required-by-law payments (for news reuse) with content licensing deals of its own devising. And thereby making it difficult to understand the balance of mandatory payments vs commercial arrangements.

The problem with News Showcase is that these licensing arrangements are being done behind closed doors, in many cases ahead of relevant legislation and thus purely on Google’s terms — which means the initiative risks exacerbating concerns about the power imbalance between it and traditional publishers caught in a revenue bind as their business models have been massively disrupted by the switch to digital.

If Google suddenly offers some money for content, plenty of publishers might well jump — regardless of the terms. And perhaps especially because any publishers that hold out against licensing content to Google at the price it likes risk being disadvantaged by reduced visibility for their content, given Google’s dominance of the search market and content discoverability (via its ability to direct traffic to specific media properties, such as based on how prominently News Showcase content is displayed, for example).

The competition implications look clear.

But it’s still impressive that the Bundeskartellamt is spinning up an investigation into News Showcase so quickly.

The FCO said it’s acting on a complaint from Corint Media — looking at whether the announced integration of the Google News Showcase service into Google’s general search function is “likely to constitute self-preferencing or an impediment to the services offered by competing third parties”.

It also said it’s looking at whether contractual conditions include unreasonable terms (“to the detriment of the participating publishers”); and, in particular, “make it disproportionately difficult for them to enforce the ancillary copyright for press publishers introduced by the German Bundestag and Bundesrat in May 2021” — a reference to the transposed neighbouring right for news in the EU copyright reform.

So it will be examining the core issue of whether Google is trying to use News Showcase to undermine the new EU rights publishers gained under the copyright reform.

The FCO also said it wants to look at “how the conditions for access to Google’s News Showcase service are defined”.

Google launched the News Showcase in Germany on October 1 2020, with an initial 20 media companies participating — covering 50 publications. Although more have been added since.

Per the FCO, the News Showcase ‘story panels’ were initially integrated in the Google News app but can now also be found in Google News on the desktop. It also notes that Google has said the panels will soon also appear in the general Google search results — a move that will further dial up the competition dynamics around the product, given Google’s massive dominance of the search market in Europe.

Commenting on its proceeding in a statement, Andreas Mundt, president of the Bundeskartellamt, said: “Cooperating with Google can be an attractive option for publishers and other news providers and offer consumers new or improved information services. However, it must be ensured that this will not result in discrimination between individual publishers. In addition, Google’s strong position in providing access to end customers must not lead to a situation where competing services offered by publishers or other news providers are squeezed out of the market. There must be an adequate balance between the rights and obligations of the content providers participating in Google’s programme.”

Google was contacted for comment on the FCO’s action — and it sent us this statement, attributed to spokesperson, Kay Oberbeck:

“Showcase is one of many ways Google supports journalism, building on products and funds that all publishers can benefit from. Showcase is an international licensing program for news — the selection of partners is based on objective and non-discriminatory criteria, and partner content is not given preference in the ranking of our results. We will cooperate fully with the German Competition Authority and look forward to answering their questions.”

The FCO’s scrutiny of Google News Showcase, follows hard on the heels of two other Google proceedings it opened last month, one to determine whether or not the tech giant meets the threshold of Germany’s new competition powers for tackling big tech — and another examining its data processing practices. Both remain ongoing.

The competition authority has also recently opened a proceeding into Amazon’s market dominance — and is also looking to extend another recent investigation of Facebook’s Oculus business, also by determining whether the social media giant’s business meets the threshold required under the new law.

The amendment to the German Competition Act came into force in January — giving the FCO greater powers to proactively impose conditions on large digital companies who are considered to be of “paramount significance for competition across markets” in order to pre-emptively control the risk of market abuse.

That it’s taking on so many proceedings in parallel against big tech shows it’s keen not to waste any time — putting itself in a position to come, as quickly as possible, with proactive interventions to address competitive problems caused by platform giants just as soon as it determines it can legally do that.

The Bundeskartellamt also has a pioneering case against Facebook’s ‘superprofiling’ on its desk — which links privacy abuse to competition concerns and could drastically limit the tech giant’s ability to profile users. That investigation and case has been ongoing for years but was recently referred to Europe’s top court for an interpretation of key legal questions.

 

Goldman Sachs leads $202M investment in project44, doubling its valuation to $1.2B in a matter of months

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a lot in the world, and supply chains are no exception. 

A number of applications that aim to solve workflow challenges across the supply chain exist. But getting real-time access to information from transportation providers has remained somewhat elusive for shippers and logistics companies alike. 

Enter project44. The seven-year-old Chicago-based company has built an API-based platform that it says acts as “the connective tissue” between transportation providers, third-party logistics companies, shippers and their supply chain systems. Using predictive analytics, the platform provides crucial real-time information such as estimated time of arrivals (ETAs).

“Supply chains have undergone an incredible amount of change — there has never been a greater need for agility, resiliency and the ability to rapidly respond to changes across the supply chain,” said Jason Duboe, the company’s chief growth officer.

And now, project44 announced it has raised $202 million in a Series E funding round led by Goldman Sachs Asset Management and Emergence Capital. Girteka and Lineage Logistics also participated in the financing, which gives project44 a post-money valuation of $1.2 billion. That doubles the company’s valuation at the time of its Insight Partners-led $100 million Series D in December, and brings its total raised since inception to $442.5 million.

The raise is quite possibly the largest investment in the supply chain visibility space to date.

Project44 is one of those refreshingly transparent private companies that gives insight into its financials. This month, the company says it crossed $50 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR), which is up 100% year over year. It has more than 600 customers, including some of the world’s largest brands such as Amazon, Walmart, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever, Lenovo and P&G. Customers hail from a variety of industries, including CPG, retail, e-commerce, manufacturing, pharma and chemical.

Over the last year, the pandemic created a number of supply chain disruptions, underscoring the importance of technologies that help provide visibility into supply chain operations. Project44 said it worked hard to help customers mitigate “relentless volatility, bottlenecks, and logistics breakdowns,” including during the Suez Canal incident where a cargo ship got stuck for days.

Looking ahead, project44 plans to use its new capital in part to continue its global expansion. Project44 recently announced its expansion into China and has plans to grow in the Asia-Pacific, Australia/New Zealand and Latin American markets, according to Duboe.

We are also going to continue to invest heavily in our carrier products to enable more participation and engagement from the transportation community that desires a stronger digital experience to improve efficiency and experience for their customers,” he told TechCrunch. The company also aims to expand its artificial intelligence (AI) and data science capabilities and broaden sales and marketing reach globally.

Last week, project44 announced its acquisition of ClearMetal, a San Francisco-based supply chain planning software company that focuses on international freight visibility, predictive planning and overall customer experience. With the buy, Duboe said project44 will now have two contracts with Amazon: road and ocean. 

“Project44 will power what they are chasing,” he added.

And in March, the company also acquired Ocean Insights to expand its ocean offerings.

Will Chen, a managing director of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, believes that project44 is unique in its scope of network coverage across geographies and modes of transport.  

“Most competitors predominantly focus on over-the-road visibility and primarily serve one region, whereas project44 is a truly global business that provides end-to-end visibility across their customers’ entire supply chain,” he said.

Goldman Sachs Asset Management, noted project44 CEO and founder Jett McCandless, will help the company grow not only by providing capital but through its network and resources.

Wayflyer raises $76M to provide ‘revenue-based’ financing to e-commerce merchants

Wayflyer, a revenue-based financing platform for e-commerce merchants, has raised $76 million in a Series A funding round led by Left Lane Capital.

“Partners” of DST Global, QED Investors, Speedinvest and Zinal Growth — the family office of Guillaume Pousaz (founder of Checkout.com) — also put money in the round. The raise comes just after Wayflyer raised $100 million in debt funding to support its cash advance product, and 14 months after the Dublin, Ireland-based startup launched its first product.

With an e-commerce boom fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayflyer is the latest in a group of startups focused on the space that has attracted investor interest as of late. The company aims to help e-commerce merchants “unlock growth” by giving them access to working capital (from $10,000 up to $20 million) so they can improve cash flow and drive sales. For example, more cash can help these merchants do things like buy more inventory in bulk so they can meet customer demand and save money. 

In a nutshell, Wayflyer uses analytics and sends merchants cash to make inventory purchases or investments in their business. Those merchants then repay Wayflyer using a percentage of their revenue until the money is paid back (plus a fee charged for the cash advance). So essentially, the merchants are using their revenue to get financing, hence the term revenue-based financing. The advantage, Wayflyer says, is that companies make repayments as a percentage of their sales. So if they have a slow month, they will pay back less. So, there’s more flexibility involved than with other mechanisms such as traditional bank loans.

Co-founder Aidan Corbett believes that in a crowded space, Wayflyer’s use of big data gives it an edge over competitors.

Corbett and former VC Jack Pierse spun Wayflyer out of a marketing analytics company that Corbett had also started, called Conjura, in September 2019.

“Jack came to me and said, ‘You should stop using our marketing analytics engine to do these big enterprise SaaS solutions, and instead use them to underwrite e-commerce businesses for short-term finance,’ ” Corbett recalls.

And so he did.

“We just had our heads down and started repurposing the platform for it to be an underwriting platform,” Corbett said. It launched in April 2020, doing about $600,000 in advances at the time. In March of 2021, Wayflyer did about $36 million in advances.

“So, it’s been a pretty aggressive kind of growth,” Corbett said.

Over the past six months alone, the company has seen its business grow 290% as it has deployed over $150 million of funding across 10 markets with a focus on the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia. About 75% of its customers are U.S. based.

Wayflyer plans to use its new capital toward product development and global expansion with the goal of entering “multiple” new markets in the coming months. The company recently opened a sales office in Atlanta, and also has locations in the U.K., the Netherlands and Spain.

To Corbett, the company’s offering is more compelling than buy now, pay later solutions for consumers for example, in that it is funding the merchant directly and able to add services on top of that.

“There’s a lot more opportunity for companies like ourselves to differentiate because essentially, we focus on the merchants. And when we underwrite the merchant by getting data from the merchant, there’s a lot of additional services that you can put in on top,” Corbett explained. “Whereas with buy now, pay later, you get information on the consumer, and there’s not as much room to add additional services on top.”

For example, if a business requests an advance and either is not approved for one, or doesn’t choose to take it, Wayflyer’s analytics platform is free to anybody who signs up to help them optimize their marketing spend.

“This is a critical driver of value for e-commerce businesses. If you can’t acquire customers at a reasonable price, you’re not going to be around very long. And a lot of early-stage e-commerce businesses struggle with that,” Corbett said.

It also can pair up a merchant with a marketing analytics “specialist” to analyze its marketing performance or an inventory “specialist” to look at the current terms and price a business is getting from a supplier.

“Our focus from the very beginning is really supporting the merchants, not just providing them with working capital,” Corbett said.  

Another way the company claims to be different is in how it deploys funds. As mentioned above, merchants can pay the money back at varied terms, depending on how sales are going. The company makes money by charging a principal on advances, and then a “remittance rate” on revenues until the total amount is paid back.

“We tend to be more flexible than competition in this way,” Corbett said. “Also, some competitors will pay invoices on merchants’ behalf or give them a pre-charged card to use on advertising spend,” Corbett said. “We always give cash into a merchant’s account.” 

Wayflyer recently inked an agreement with Adobe Commerce, a partnership it said would provide a new channel to further amplify its growth with the goal of funding 8,000 e-commerce businesses in the first year of the partnership.

For his part, Left Lane Capital Partner Dan Ahrens said that his firm was impressed by Wayflyer’s “nuanced understanding of what will drive value for their clients.”

“The team’s focus, specialization, and deep analytical expertise within the e-commerce market also drives superior underwriting,” he told TechCrunch. “Their explosive growth has not come about by taking on undue risk. We are big believers that their underwriting will only improve with scale, and that Wayflyer will be able to compound its competitive advantages over time.”

As mentioned, this is an increasingly crowded space. Earlier this month, Settle announced it had raised $15 million in a Series A funding round led by Kleiner Perkins to give e-commerce and consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies access to non-dilutive capital.

E-commerce startup Little Birdie lands $30M AUD pre-launch funding from Australia’s largest bank

A photo of (left) Commonwealth Bank group executive Angus Sullivan and (right) Jon Beros, co-founder and CEO of Little Birdie, standing in front of Little Birdie’s logo

Commonwealth Bank group executive Angus Sullivan and Jon Beros, co-founder and CEO of Little Birdie

Melbourne-based Little Birdie, an e-commerce startup that wants to become the “new homepage of online shopping,” won’t launch until next month, but it’s already scored a major investor. Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), the largest of Australia’s “Big Four” banks, has poured $30 million AUD (about $23.2 million USD) in pre-launch funding into Little Birdie, and will also integrate its shopping content, including exclusive offers, into its consumer banking app, which reaches 11 million retail customers in Australia.

Little Birdie says this brings its valuation to $130 million AUD (about $100 million USD). Compared to the United States, where Amazon is the largest e-commerce retailer by far, Australian shoppers spend more time choosing between several platforms, including large marketplaces like eBay, Gumtree, Amazon, Woolworths and a host of smaller players.

Set to launch in mid-June, Little Birdie will aggregate over 70 million products from different online brands and stores, with the goal of being the first place shoppers look when they want to buy something. Users can use Little Birdie to track and compare products, and look for price drops, sales and offers. The SKUs come from a combination of brand partnerships and scraping e-commerce sites, with the majority from retailers’ product feeds.

Co-founder and chief executive officer Jon Beros told TechCrunch that “Australia’s e-commerce market is very competitive and quite fragmented with a lot of retailers fighting for market share. The pandemic accelerated online adoption and saw many retailers switch on an online presence, or shift their focus online. With so many players fighting for the attention of shoppers and driving up the cost of acquisition, Little Birdie can genuinely help retailers by providing a new marketing channel that delivers qualified customers leads.”

Commonwealth Bank will be able to access Little Birdie’s catalog of shopping content to create targeted offers for customers, including features that link savings goals to specific items through its money management tools. Beros said that Little Birdie will also seek two different types of brand partnerships: “Firstly with retailers who come on board to promote their exclusive offers and products on Little Birdie and secondly with major brands and media companies that look to integrate our shopping content into their apps or websites. These integration partners ultimately deepen the value Little Birdie offers its retail partners by helping to amplify the reach of their offers to a wider audience.”

The company is looking at expansion into Southeast Asia and the United States, but Beros said there is not a firm timeline for its international growth yet, since it depends on the COVID-19 pandemic situation and when borders start to reopen.

In a press statement, Commonwealth Bank group executive Angus Sullivan said, “We believe customers should have access to the world’s best digital experience and our partnership with Little Birdie will give customers access to exclusive industry leading deals via the CommBank app.”

Climate risk platform Cervest raises $30M Series A led by Draper Esprit

Cervest – a startup with a platform that claims to quantify climate risk across multiple decades and threats down to the asset level – has raised a $30 million Series A round led by Draper Esprit. Previous investors Astanor Ventures, Lowercarbon Capital (Chris Sacca), and Future Positive Capital also participated in the round, and were joined by new investors UNTITLED, the venture fund of Magnus Rausing, and TIME Ventures, the venture fund of Marc Benioff. Cervest’s total funding now stands at $36.2 million. It previously raised $5.2M in 2019.

Cervest’s competitors include Jupiter Intelligence, which has raised $35M to Series B level, but Cervest claims it has a more data + AI approach.

The company will use the new funding to expand in the U.S. and European markets through its freemium model
It’s widely accepted now, with unpredictable weather patterns and clear climate “weirding” that these weather events are of huge risk to trillions of dollars of physical assets.

Cervest says its “Climate Intelligence” platform has been built through peer-reviewed research over the five years and combines public and private data sources (i.e. NOAA, ECMWF, CMIP6), machine learning, and statistical science to come up with a view of climate risks to assets.

‘EarthScan’ will be its first product, giving enterprises and governments a view on how flooding, droughts, and extreme temperatures can impact the assets they own or manage,going back 50 years and looking forward 80 years.

Iggy Bassi, Founder and CEO of Cervest said: “Climate Intelligence is Business Intelligence for managing climate risk. Climate volatility has thrown us into a new era where Climate Intelligence needs to be integrated into all decisions. Organizations that fail to do so risk being blindsided by climate events such as the recent floods and fires in Australia, the droughts in Europe, and the winter freeze in Texas. Much of the spotlight is on decarbonization today. While this is absolutely necessary, it is not sufficient to build asset-level resilience.”

Vinoth Jayakumar, Partner and Fintech Practice Lead at Draper Esprit added: “Climate Tech has grabbed a lot of attention recently, with good reason… Cervest’s pioneering approach to quantifying risk, in a way that was never before possible, means we can better understand the economics of the problem and bring real-world market solutions to bear.”

Construction tech upstart Assignar adds a Fifth Wall with $20M Series B

Construction technology may not be the sexiest of industries, but it is one where tremendous opportunity lies — considering it has historically lagged in productivity. And, lags in productivity means project delays, which typically costs everyone involved more time and more money.

There are a number of larger players in the space (think Procore, PlanGrid and Autodesk) that are tackling the problems from the perspective of the general contractor. But when it comes to the subcontractors that are hired by the general contractor to do 95% of the work, the pickings are few and far between.

Enter Assignar, a cloud-based construction tech startup that was originally born in Australia and is now based in Denver, Colorado. Co-founder and CEO Sean McCreanor was a contractor himself for many years, and grew frustrated with the lack of offerings available to him. So, as in the case of many founders, he set out to create the technology he wished existed.

And today, Assignar has raised $20 million in a Series B funding round led by real estate tech-focused venture firm Fifth Wall. 

Existing backer Tola Capital and new investor Ironspring Ventures also put money in the round, which brings Assignar’s total raised since its 2014 inception to $31 million.

“I had 100 crews and workers out in the field, lots of heavy equipment and project work, and was running the entire business on spreadsheets and whiteboards,” McCreanor recalls. “With Assignar, we essentially help the office connect to the field and vice versa.”

In a nutshell, Assignar’s operations platform is designed for use by “self-perform general and subcontractors” on public and private infrastructure projects. The company’s goal is to make the whole process smoother for large general contractors, developers and real estate owner-operators by providing a “real-time snapshot of granular field activity.”

Specifically, Assignar aims to streamline operations and schedules, track crews and equipment, and improve quality and safety, as well as measure and monitor productivity and progress with data on all projects. For example, it claims to be able to help match up the best crews and equipment for a specific job “more efficiently.”

The startup says it has hundreds of international customers working on multibillion-dollar projects in infrastructure, road, rail, heavy civil, utilities and other construction disciplines. Those customers range from specialist contractors with as few as five crews to multi-national, multibillion-dollar companies. Projects include things such as bridges and roads, for example.

Image Credits: Assignar

Assignar historically has “more than doubled” its revenue every year since inception and in 2020, saw revenue increase by 75%.

“We could have grown faster but wanted to manage cash flow,” McCreanor told TechCrunch.

Assignar’s focus is particularly significant these days considering that the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Bill is nearing agreement, likely signaling an investment in infrastructure for communities across the U.S. 

The heavy civil and horizontal construction industry has long lacked a well-designed and ubiquitous operations platform, according to Fifth Wall Partner Vik Chawla.

“Assignar’s cloud-based software offers a detailed view on when and where different types of field activities are being performed,” he said. “It streamlines communications between headquarters and the field, allows for a reduction in paperwork, and brings time and cost savings to an industry where much of the planning, tracking and reporting are still done by hand, in Excel or on white boards.”

Assignar plans to use its new capital to grow its business in North America (which currently makes up about 25% of its revenue) and double its 65-person team by hiring for roles across all departments. The company also plans to invest in R&D and product development to further build out its core platform. Among the features it’s planning to develop is a contractor hub and a schedule recommendation engine that McCreanor says will leverage data, AI and machine learning “to support planning and execution processes.”

Proton, the privacy startup behind e2e encrypted ProtonMail, confirms passing 50M users

End-to-end encrypted email provider ProtonMail has officially confirmed it’s passed 50 million users globally as it turns seven years old.

It’s a notable milestone for a services provider that intentionally does not have a data business — opting instead for a privacy pledge based on zero access architecture that means it has no way to decrypt the contents of ProtonMail users’ emails.

Although, to be clear, the 50M+ figure applies to total users of all its products (which includes a VPN offering), not just users of its e2e encrypted email. (It declined to break out email users vs other products when we asked.)

Commenting in a statement, Andy Yen, founder and CEO, said: “The conversation about privacy has shifted surprisingly quickly in the past seven years. Privacy has gone from being an afterthought, to the main focus of a lot of discussions about the future of the Internet. In the process, Proton has gone from a crowdfunded idea of a better Internet, to being at the forefront of the global privacy wave. Proton is an alternative to the surveillance capitalism model advanced by Silicon Valley’s tech giants, that allows us to put the needs of users and society first.”

ProtonMail, which was founded in 2014, has diversified into offering a suite of products — including the aforementioned VPN and a calendar offering (Proton Calendar). A cloud storage service, Proton Drive, is also slated for public release later this year.

For all these products it claims take the same ‘zero access’ hands off approach to user data. Albeit, it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison to compare e2e encrypted email with an encrypted VPN service — since the issue with VPN services is that they can see activity (i.e. where the encrypted or otherwise packets are going) and that metadata can sum to a log of your Internet activity (even with e2e encryption of the packets themselves).

Proton claims it doesn’t track or record its VPN users’ web browsing. And given its wider privacy-dependent reputation that’s at least a more credible claim vs the average VPN service. Nonetheless, you do still have to trust Proton not to do that (or be forced to do that by, for e.g., law enforcement). It’s not the same technical ‘zero access’ guarantee as it can offer for its e2e encrypted email.

Proton does also offer a free VPN — which, as we’ve said before, can be a red flag for data logging risk — but the company specifies that users of the paid version subsidize free users. So, again, the claim is zero logging but you still need to make a judgement call on whether to trust that.

From Snowden to 50M+

Over ProtonMail’s seven year run privacy has certainly gained cache as a brand promise — which is why you can now see data-mining giants like Facebook making ludicrous claims about ‘pivoting’ their people-profiling surveillance empires to ‘privacy’. So, as ever, PR that’s larded with claims of ‘respect for privacy’ demands very close scrutiny.

And while it’s clearly absurd for an adtech giant like Facebook to try to cloak the fact that its business model relies on stripping away people’s privacy with claims to the contrary, in Proton’s case the privacy claim is very strong indeed — since the company was founded with the goal of being “immune to large scale spying”. Spying such as that carried out by the NSA.

ProtonMail’s founding idea was to build a system “that does not require trusting us”.

While usage of e2e encryption has grown enormously since 2013 — when disclosures by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, revealed the extent of data gathering by government mass surveillance programs, which were shown (il)liberally tapping into Internet cables and mainstream digital services to grab people’s data without their knowledge or consent — growth that’s certainly been helped by consumer friendly services like ProtonMail making robust encryption far more accessible — there are worrying moves by lawmakers in a number of jurisdictions that clash with the core idea and threaten access to e2e encryption.

In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, ‘Five Eyes’ countries steadily amped up international political pressure on e2e encryption. Australia, for example, passed an anti-encryption law in 2018 — which grants police powers to issue ‘technical notices’ to force companies operating on its soil to help the government hack, implant malware, undermine encryption or insert backdoors at the behest of the government.

While, in 2016, the UK reaffirmed its surveillance regime — passing a law that gives the government powers to compel companies to remove or not implement e2e encryption. Under the Investigatory Powers Act, a statutory instrument called a Technical Capability Notice (TCN) can be served on comms services providers to compel decrypted access. (And as the ORG noted in April, there’s no way to track usage as the law gags providers from reporting anything at all about a TCN application, including that it even exists.)

More recently, UK ministers have kept up public pressure on e2e encryption — framing it as an existential threat to child protection. Simultaneously they are legislating — via an Online Safety Bill, out in draft earlier this month — to put a legally binding obligation on service providers to ‘prevent bad things from happening on the Internet’ (as the ORG neatly sums it up). And while still at the draft stage, private messaging services are in scope of that bill — putting the law on a potential collision course with messaging services that use e2e encryption.

The U.S., meanwhile, has declined to reform warrantless surveillance.

And if you think the EU is a safe space for e2e encryption, there are reasons to be concerned in continental Europe too.

EU lawmakers have recently made a push for what they describe as “lawful access” to encrypted data — without specifying exactly how that might be achieved, i.e. without breaking and/or backdooring e2e encryption and therefore undoing the digital security they also say is vital.

In a further worrying development, EU lawmakers have proposed automated scanning of encrypted communications services — aka a provision called ‘chatcontrol’ that’s ostensibly targeted at prosecuting those who share child exploitation content — which raises further questions over how such laws might intersect with ‘zero access’ services like ProtonMail.

The European Pirate Party has been sounding the alarm — and dubs the ‘chatcontrol’ proposal “the end of the privacy of digital correspondence” — warning that “securely encrypted communication is at risk”.

A plenary vote on the proposal is expected in the coming months — so where exactly the EU lands on that remains to be seen.

ProtonMail, meanwhile, is based in Switzerland which is not a member of the EU and has one of the stronger reputations for privacy laws globally. However the country also backed beefed-up surveillance powers in 2016 — extending the digital snooping capabilities of its own intelligence agencies.

It does also adopt some EU regulations — so, again, it’s not clear whether or not any pan-EU automated scanning of message content could end up being applied to services based in the country.

The threats to e2e encryption are certainly growing, even as usage of such properly private services keeps scaling.

Asked whether it has concerns, ProtonMail pointed out that the EU’s current temporary chatcontrol proposal is voluntary — meaning it would be up to the company in question to decide its own policy. Although it accepts there is “some support” in the Commission for the chatcontrol proposals to be made mandatory.

“It’s not clear at this time whether these proposals could impact Proton specifically [i.e. if they were to become mandatory],” the spokesman also told us. “The extent to which a Swiss company like Proton might be impacted by such efforts would have to be assessed based on the specific legal proposal. To our knowledge, none has been made for now.”

“We completely agree that steps have to be taken to combat the spread of illegal explicit material. However, our concern is that the forced scanning of communications would be an ineffective approach and would instead have the unintended effect of undermining many of the basic freedoms that the EU was established to protect,” he added. “Any form of automated content scanning is incompatible with end-to-end encryption and by definition undermines the right to privacy.”

So while Proton is rightly celebrating that a steady commitment to zero access infrastructure over the past seven years has helped its business grow to 50M+ users, there are reasons for all privacy-minded folk to be watchful of what the next years of political developments might mean for the privacy and security of all our data.