What we can learn from edtech startups’ expansion efforts in Europe

It’s a story common to all sectors today: investors only want to see ‘uppy-righty’ charts in a pitch. However, edtech growth in the past 18 months has ramped up to such an extent that companies need to be presenting 3x+ growth in annual recurring revenue to even get noticed by their favored funds.

Some companies are able to blast this out of the park — like GoStudent, Ornikar and YouSchool — but others, arguably less suited to the conditions presented by the pandemic, have found it more difficult to present this kind of growth.

One of the most common themes Brighteye sees in young companies is an emphasis on international expansion for growth. To get some additional insight into this trend, we surveyed edtech firms on their expansion plans, priorities and pitfalls. We received 57 responses and supplemented it with interviews of leading companies and investors. Europe is home 49 of the surveyed companies, six are based in the U.S., and three in Asia.

Going international later in the journey or when more funding is available, possibly due to a VC round, seems to make facets of expansion more feasible. Higher budgets also enable entry to several markets nearly simultaneously.

The survey revealed a roughly even split of target customers across companies, institutions and consumers, as well as a good spread of home markets. The largest contingents were from the U.K. and France, with 13 and nine respondents respectively, followed by the U.S. with seven, Norway with five, and Spain, Finland, and Switzerland with four each. About 40% of these firms were yet to foray beyond their home country and the rest had gone international.

International expansion is an interesting and nuanced part of the growth path of an edtech firm. Unlike their neighbors in fintech, it’s assumed that edtech companies need to expand to a number of big markets in order to reach a scale that makes them attractive to VCs. This is less true than it was in early 2020, as digital education and work is now so commonplace that it’s possible to build a billion-dollar edtech in a single, larger European market.

But naturally, nearly every ambitious edtech founder realizes they need to expand overseas to grow at a pace that is attractive to investors. They have good reason to believe that, too: The complexities of selling to schools and universities, for example, are widely documented, so it might seem logical to take your chances and build market share internationally. It follows that some view expansion as a way of diversifying risk — e.g. we are growing nicely in market X, but what if the opportunity in Y is larger and our business begins to decline for some reason in market X?

International expansion sounds good, but what does it mean? We asked a number of organizations this question as part of the survey analysis. The responses were quite broad, and their breadth to an extent reflected their target customer groups and how those customers are reached. If the product is web-based and accessible anywhere, then it’s relatively easy for a company with a good product to reach customers in a large number of markets (50+). The firm can then build teams and wider infrastructure around that traction.

Billogram, provider of a payments platform specifically for recurring billing, raises $45M

Payments made a huge shift to digital platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic — purchasing moved online for many consumers and businesses; and a large proportion of those continuing to buy and sell in-person went cash-free. Today a startup that has been focusing on one specific aspect of payments — recurring billing — is announcing a round of funding to capitalize on that growth with expansion of its own. Billogram, which has built a platform for third parties to build and handle any kind of recurring payments (not one-off purchases), has closed a round of $45 million.

The funding is coming from a single investor, Partech, and will be used to help the Stockholm-based startup expand from its current base in Sweden to six more markets, Jonas Suijkerbuijk, Billogram’s CEO and founder, said in an interview, to cover more of Germany (where it’s already active now), Norway, Finland, Ireland, France, Spain, and Italy.

The company got its start working with SMBs in 2011 but pivoted some years later to working with larger enterprises, which make up the majority of its business today. Suijkerbuijk said that in 2020, signed deals went up by 300%, and the first half of 2021 grew 50% more on top of that. Its users include utilities like Skanska Energi and broadband company Ownit, and others like remote healthcare company Kry, businesses that take invoice and take monthly payments from their customers.

While there has been a lot of attention around how companies like Apple and Google are handling subscriptions and payments in apps, what Billogram focuses on is a different beast, and much more complex: it’s more integrated into the business providing services, and it may involve different services, and the fees can vary over every billing period. It’s for this reason that, in fact, even big companies in the realm of digital payments, like Stripe, which might even already have products that can help manage subscriptions on their platforms, partner with companies like Billogram to build the experiences to manage their more involved kinds of payment services.

I should point out here that Suijkerbuijk told me that Stripe recently became a partner of Billograms, which is very interesting… but he also added that a number of the big payments companies have talked to Billogram. He also confirmed that currently Stripe is not an investor in the company. “We have a very good relationship,” he said.

It’s not surprising to see Stripe and others wanting to more in the area of more complex, recurring billing services. Researchers estimate that the market size (revenues and services) for subscription and recurring billing will be close to $6 billion this year, with that number ballooning to well over $10 billion by 2025. And indeed, the effort to make a payment or any kind of transaction will continue to be a point of friction in the world of commerce, so any kinds of systems that bring technology to bear to make that easier and something that consumers or businesses will do without thinking about it, will be valuable, and will likely grow in dominance. (It’s why the more basic subscription services, such as Prime membership or a Netflix subscription, or a cloud storage account, are such winners.)

Within that very big pie, Suijkerbuijk noted that rather than the Apples and Googles of the world, the kinds of businesses that Billogram currently competes against are those that are addressing the same thornier end of the payments spectrum that Billogram is. These include a wide swathe of incumbent companies that do a lot of their business in areas like debt collection, and other specialists like Scaleworks-backed Chargify — which itself got a big investment injection earlier this year from Battery Ventures, which put $150 million into both it and another billing provider, SaaSOptics, in April.

The former group of competitors are not currently a threat to Billogram, he added.

“Debt collecting agencies are big on invoicing, but no one — not their customers, nor their customers’ customers — loves them, so they are great competitors to have,” Suijkerbuijk joked.

This also means that Billogram is not likely to move into debt collection itself as it continues to expand. Instead, he said, the focus will be on building out more tools to make the invoicing and payments experience better and less painful to customers. That will likely include more moves into customer service and generally improving the overall billing experience — something we have seen become a bigger area also during the pandemic, as companies realized that they needed to address non-payments in a different way from how their used to, given world events and the impact they were having on individuals.

“We are excited to partner with Jonas and the team at Billogram.” says Omri Benayoun, General Partner at Partech, in a statement. “Having spotted a gap in the market, they have quietly built the most advanced platform for large B2C enterprises looking to integrate billing, payment, and collection in one single solution. In our discussion with leading utilities, telecom, e-health, and all other clients across Europe, we realized how valuable Billogram was for them in order to engage with their end-users through a top-notch billing and payment experience. The outstanding commercial traction demonstrated by Billogram has further cemented our conviction, and we can’t wait to support the team in bringing their solution to many more customers in Europe and beyond!”

After years of inaction against adtech, UK’s ICO calls for browser-level controls to fix ‘cookie fatigue’

In the latest quasi-throwback toward ‘do not track‘, the UK’s data protection chief has come out in favor of a browser- and/or device-level setting to allow Internet users to set “lasting” cookie preferences — suggesting this as a fix for the barrage of consent pop-ups that continues to infest websites in the region.

European web users digesting this development in an otherwise monotonously unchanging regulatory saga, should be forgiven — not only for any sense of déjà vu they may experience — but also for wondering if they haven’t been mocked/gaslit quite enough already where cookie consent is concerned.

Last month, UK digital minister Oliver Dowden took aim at what he dubbed an “endless” parade of cookie pop-ups — suggesting the government is eyeing watering down consent requirements around web tracking as ministers consider how to diverge from European Union data protection standards, post-Brexit. (He’s slated to present the full sweep of the government’s data ‘reform’ plans later this month so watch this space.)

Today the UK’s outgoing information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, stepped into the fray to urge her counterparts in G7 countries to knock heads together and coalesce around the idea of letting web users express generic privacy preferences at the browser/app/device level, rather than having to do it through pop-ups every time they visit a website.

In a statement announcing “an idea” she will present this week during a virtual meeting of fellow G7 data protection and privacy authorities — less pithily described in the press release as being “on how to improve the current cookie consent mechanism, making web browsing smoother and more business friendly while better protecting personal data” — Denham said: “I often hear people say they are tired of having to engage with so many cookie pop-ups. That fatigue is leading to people giving more personal data than they would like.

“The cookie mechanism is also far from ideal for businesses and other organisations running websites, as it is costly and it can lead to poor user experience. While I expect businesses to comply with current laws, my office is encouraging international collaboration to bring practical solutions in this area.”

“There are nearly two billion websites out there taking account of the world’s privacy preferences. No single country can tackle this issue alone. That is why I am calling on my G7 colleagues to use our convening power. Together we can engage with technology firms and standards organisations to develop a coordinated approach to this challenge,” she added.

Contacted for more on this “idea”, an ICO spokeswoman reshuffled the words thusly: “Instead of trying to effect change through nearly 2 billion websites, the idea is that legislators and regulators could shift their attention to the browsers, applications and devices through which users access the web.

“In place of click-through consent at a website level, users could express lasting, generic privacy preferences through browsers, software applications and device settings – enabling them to set and update preferences at a frequency of their choosing rather than on each website they visit.”

Of course a browser-baked ‘Do not track’ (DNT) signal is not a new idea. It’s around a decade old at this point. Indeed, it could be called the idea that can’t die because it’s never truly lived — as earlier attempts at embedding user privacy preferences into browser settings were scuppered by lack of industry support.

However the approach Denham is advocating, vis-a-vis “lasting” preferences, may in fact be rather different to DNT — given her call for fellow regulators to engage with the tech industry, and its “standards organizations”, and come up with “practical” and “business friendly” solutions to the regional Internet’s cookie pop-up problem.

It’s not clear what consensus — practical or, er, simply pro-industry — might result from this call. If anything.

Indeed, today’s press release may be nothing more than Denham trying to raise her own profile since she’s on the cusp of stepping out of the information commissioner’s chair. (Never waste a good international networking opportunity and all that — her counterparts in the US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany and Italy are scheduled for a virtual natter today and tomorrow where she implies she’ll try to engage them with her big idea).

Her UK replacement, meanwhile, is already lined up. So anything Denham personally champions right now, at the end of her ICO chapter, may have a very brief shelf life — unless she’s set to parachute into a comparable role at another G7 caliber data protection authority.

Nor is Denham the first person to make a revived pitch for a rethink on cookie consent mechanisms — even in recent years.

Last October, for example, a US-centric tech-publisher coalition came out with what they called a Global Privacy Standard (GPC) — aiming to build momentum for a browser-level pro-privacy signal to stop the sale of personal data, geared toward California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), though pitched as something that could have wider utility for Internet users.

By January this year they announced 40M+ users were making use of a browser or extension that supports GPC — along with a clutch of big name publishers signed up to honor it. But it’s fair to say its global impact so far remains limited. 

More recently, European privacy group noyb published a technical proposal for a European-centric automated browser-level signal that would let regional users configure advanced consent choices — enabling the more granular controls it said would be needed to fully mesh with the EU’s more comprehensive (vs CCPA) legal framework around data protection.

The proposal, for which noyb worked with the Sustainable Computing Lab at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, is called Advanced Data Protection Control (ADPC). And noyb has called on the EU to legislate for such a mechanism — suggesting there’s a window of opportunity as lawmakers there are also keen to find ways to reduce cookie fatigue (a stated aim for the still-in-train reform of the ePrivacy rules, for example).

So there are some concrete examples of what practical, less fatiguing yet still pro-privacy consent mechanisms might look like to lend a little more color to Denham’s ‘idea’ — although her remarks today don’t reference any such existing mechanisms or proposals.

(When we asked the ICO for more details on what she’s advocating for, its spokeswoman didn’t cite any specific technical proposals or implementations, historical or contemporary, either, saying only: “By working together, the G7 data protection authorities could have an outsized impact in stimulating the development of technological solutions to the cookie consent problem.”)

So Denham’s call to the G7 does seem rather low on substance vs profile-raising noise.

In any case, the really big elephant in the room here is the lack of enforcement around cookie consent breaches — including by the ICO.

Add to that, there’s the now very pressing question of how exactly the UK will ‘reform’ domestic law in this area (post-Brexit) — which makes the timing of Denham’s call look, well, interestingly opportune. (And difficult to interpret as anything other than opportunistically opaque at this point.)

The adtech industry will of course be watching developments in the UK with interest — and would surely be cheering from the rooftops if domestic data protection ‘reform’ results in amendments to UK rules that allow the vast majority of websites to avoid having to ask Brits for permission to process their personal data, say by opting them into tracking by default (under the guise of ‘fixing’ cookie friction and cookie fatigue for them).

That would certainly be mission accomplished after all these years of cookie-fatigue-generating-cookie-consent-non-compliance by surveillance capitalism’s industrial data complex.

It’s not yet clear which way the UK government will jump — but eyebrows should raise to read the ICO writing today that it expects compliance with (current) UK law when it has so roundly failed to tackle the adtech industry’s role in cynically sicking up said cookie fatigue by failing to take any action against such systemic breaches.

The bald fact is that the ICO has — for years — avoided tackling adtech abuse of data protection, despite acknowledging publicly that the sector is wildly out of control.

Instead, it has opted for a cringing ‘process of engagement’ (read: appeasement) that has condemned UK Internet users to cookie pop-up hell.

This is why the regulator is being sued for inaction — after it closed a long-standing complaint against the security abuse of people’s data in real-time bidding ad auctions with nothing to show for it… So, yes, you can be forgiven for feeling gaslit by Denham’s call for action on cookie fatigue following the ICO’s repeat inaction on the causes of cookie fatigue…

Not that the ICO is alone on that front, however.

There has been a fairly widespread failure by EU regulators to tackle systematic abuse of the bloc’s data protection rules by the adtech sector — with a number of complaints (such as this one against the IAB Europe’s self-styled ‘transparency and consent framework’) still working, painstakingly, through the various labyrinthine regulatory processes.

France’s CNIL has probably been the most active in this area — last year slapping Amazon and Google with fines of $42M and $120M for dropping tracking cookies without consent, for example. (And before you accuse CNIL of being ‘anti-American’, it has also gone after domestic adtech.)

But elsewhere — notably Ireland, where many adtech giants are regionally headquartered — the lack of enforcement against the sector has allowed for cynical, manipulative and/or meaningless consent pop-ups to proliferate as the dysfunctional ‘norm’, while investigations have failed to progress and EU citizens have been forced to become accustomed, not to regulatory closure (or indeed rapture), but to an existentially endless consent experience that’s now being (re)branded as ‘cookie fatigue’.

Yes, even with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into application in 2018 and beefing up (in theory) consent standards.

This is why the privacy campaign group noyb is now lodging scores of complaints against cookie consent breaches — to try to force EU regulators to actually enforce the law in this area, even as it also finds time to put up a practical technical proposal that could help shrink cookie fatigue without undermining data protection standards. 

It’s a shining example of action that has yet to inspire the lion’s share of the EU’s actual regulators to act on cookies. The tl;dr is that EU citizens are still waiting for the cookie consent reckoning — even if there is now a bit of high level talk about the need for ‘something to be done’ about all these tedious pop-ups.

The problem is that while GDPR certainly cranked up the legal risk on paper, without proper enforcement it’s just a paper tiger. And the pushing around of lots of paper is very tedious, clearly. 

Most cookie pop-ups you’ll see in the EU are thus essentially privacy theatre; at the very least they’re unnecessarily irritating because they create ongoing friction for web users who must constantly respond to nags for their data (typically to repeatedly try to deny access if they can actually find a ‘reject all’ setting).

But — even worse — many of these pervasive pop-ups are actively undermining the law (as a number of studies have shown) because the vast majority do not meet the legal standard for consent.

So the cookie consent/fatigue narrative is actually a story of faux compliance enabled by an enforcement vacuum that’s now also encouraging the watering down of privacy standards as a result of such much unpunished flouting of the law.

There is a lesson here, surely.

‘Faux consent’ pop-ups that you can easily stumble across when surfing the ‘ad-supported’ Internet in Europe include those failing to provide users with clear information about how their data will be used; or not offering people a free choice to reject tracking without being penalized (such as with no/limited access to the content they’re trying to access), or at least giving the impression that accepting is a requirement to access said content (dark pattern!); and/or otherwise manipulating a person’s choice by making it super simple to accept tracking and far, far, far more tedious to deny.

You can also still sometimes find cookie notices that don’t offer users any choice at all — and just pop up to inform that ‘by continuing to browse you consent to your data being processed’ — which, unless the cookies in question are literally essential for provision of the webpage, is basically illegal. (Europe’s top court made it abundantly clear in 2019 that active consent is a requirement for non-essential cookies.)

Nonetheless, to the untrained eye — and sadly there are a lot of them where cookie consent notices are concerned — it can look like it’s Europe’s data protection law that’s the ass because it seemingly demands all these meaningless ‘consent’ pop-ups, which just gloss over an ongoing background data grab anyway.

The truth is regulators should have slapped down these manipulative dark patterns years ago.

The problem now is that regulatory failure is encouraging political posturing — and, in a twisting double-back throw by the ICO! — regulatory thrusting around the idea that some newfangled mechanism is what’s really needed to remove all this universally inconvenient ‘friction’.

An idea like noyb’s ADPC does indeed look very useful in ironing out the widespread operational wrinkles wrapping the EU’s cookie consent rules. But when it’s the ICO suggesting a quick fix after the regulatory authority has failed so spectacularly over the long duration of complaints around this issue you’ll have to forgive us for being sceptical.

In such a context the notion of ‘cookie fatigue’ looks like it’s being suspiciously trumped up; fixed on as a convenient scapegoat to rechannel consumer frustration with hated online tracking toward high privacy standards — and away from the commercial data-pipes that demand all these intrusive, tedious cookie pop-ups in the first place — whilst neatly aligning with the UK government’s post-Brexit political priorities on ‘data’.

Worse still: The whole farcical consent pantomime — which the adtech industry has aggressively engaged in to try to sustain a privacy-hostile business model in spite of beefed up European privacy laws — could be set to end in genuine tragedy for user rights if standards end up being slashed to appease the law mockers.

The target of regulatory ire and political anger should really be the systematic law-breaking that’s held back privacy-respecting innovation and non-tracking business models — by making it harder for businesses that don’t abuse people’s data to compete.

Governments and regulators should not be trying to dismantle the principle of consent itself. Yet — at least in the UK — that does now look horribly possible.

Laws like GDPR set high standards for consent which — if they were but robustly enforced — could lead to reform of highly problematic practices like behavorial advertising combined with the out-of-control scale of programmatic advertising.

Indeed, we should already be seeing privacy-respecting forms of advertising being the norm, not the alternative — free to scale.

Instead, thanks to widespread inaction against systematic adtech breaches, there has been little incentive for publishers to reform bad practices and end the irritating ‘consent charade’ — which keeps cookie pop-ups mushrooming forth, oftentimes with ridiculously lengthy lists of data-sharing ‘partners’ (i.e. if you do actually click through the dark patterns to try to understand what is this claimed ‘choice’ you’re being offered).

As well as being a criminal waste of web users’ time, we now have the prospect of attention-seeking, politically charged regulators deciding that all this ‘friction’ justifies giving data-mining giants carte blanche to torch user rights — if the intention is to fire up the G7 to send a collect invite to the tech industry to come up with “practical” alternatives to asking people for their consent to track them — and all because authorities like the ICO have been too risk averse to actually defend users’ rights in the first place.

Dowden’s remarks last month suggest the UK government may be preparing to use cookie consent fatigue as convenient cover for watering down domestic data protection standards — at least if it can get away with the switcheroo.

Nothing in the ICO’s statement today suggests it would stand in the way of such a move.

Now that the UK is outside the EU, the UK government has said it believes it has an opportunity to deregulate domestic data protection — although it may find there are legal consequences for domestic businesses if it diverges too far from EU standards.

Denham’s call to the G7 naturally includes a few EU countries (the biggest economies in the bloc) but by targeting this group she’s also seeking to engage regulators further afield — in jurisdictions that currently lack a comprehensive data protection framework. So if the UK moves, cloaked in rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’, to water down its (EU-based) high domestic data protection standards it will be placing downward pressure on international aspirations in this area — as a counterweight to the EU’s geopolitical ambitions to drive global standards up to its level.

The risk, then, is a race to the bottom on privacy standards among Western democracies — at a time when awareness about the importance of online privacy, data protection and information security has actually never been higher.

Furthermore, any UK move to weaken data protection also risks putting pressure on the EU’s own high standards in this area — as the regional trajectory would be down not up. And that could, ultimately, give succour to forces inside the EU that lobby against its commitment to a charter of fundamental rights — by arguing such standards undermine the global competitiveness of European businesses.

So while cookies themselves — or indeed ‘cookie fatigue’ — may seem an irritatingly small concern, the stakes attached to this tug of war around people’s rights over what can happen to their personal data are very high indeed.

Google appeals ‘disproportionate’ French copyright talks fine

Google is appealing the more than half a billion dollar fine it got slapped with by France’s competition authority in July.

The penalty relates to the adtech giant’s approach toward paying news publishers for content reuse.

In a statement today, Sebastien Missoffe, a Google France VP and country manager, characterized the fine as “disproportionate” — claiming that the $592M penalty is not justified in light of Google’s “efforts” to cut a deal with news publishers and comply with updated copyright rules. Which reads like fairly weak sauce, as defence statements go.

“We are appealing the French Competition Authority’s decision which relates to our negotiations between April and August 2020. We disagree with a number of legal elements, and believe that the fine is disproportionate to our efforts to reach an agreement and comply with the new law,” wrote Missoffe, adding: “Irrespective of this, we recognize neighboring rights and we continue to work hard to resolve this case and put deals in place. This includes expanding offers to 1,200 publishers, clarifying aspects of our contracts, and we are sharing more data as requested by the French Competition Authority in their July Decision.”

Back in 2019, the European Union agreed on an update to digital copyright rules which extended cover to the ledes of news stories — snippets of which aggregators such as Google News had for years routinely scraped and displayed.

Individual EU Member States then needed to transpose the updated pan-EU reforms into their national laws — with France leading the pack to do so.

The country’s competition watchdog has also been leading the charge in enforcing updated rules against Google — ordering the tech giant to negotiate with publishers last year and following that up with a whopping fine when publishers complained to it about how Google was treating those talks.

Announcing the penalty this summer, the Autorité de la Concurrence accused the tech giant of attempting to unilaterally impose a global news licensing product it operates upon local publishers in a bid to avoid having to put a separate financial value on neighbouring rights remuneration — where there is a legal requirement (under EU and French law) upon it to negotiate with said publishers…

The watchdog’s full list of grievances against Google’s modus operandi was very long — check out our earlier report here — so it’s not clear how much of a placeholder action this appeal by Google is.

Per Reuters, the Autorité has said the appeal will not hold up the penalty nor impede the timeline of the order it already issued — which, in mid July, gave Google a two month timeframe to revise its offer and provide publishers with all the required info, with the threat of daily fines (of €900,000) if it failed to meet all its requirements by then. So there is now only a couple of weeks to go before that deadline.

Google may thus be hoping that by announcing an appeal now it will help ‘concentrate’ publishers’ minds — and encourage them to accept — whatever tweaked offer it comes up with, hence its statement noting an ‘expanded’ offer (now covering 1,200 publishers), and talk of “clarifying aspects of our contracts” and “sharing more data”, all of which were areas where Google got roundly spanked by the Autorité. 

Oviva grabs $80M for app-delivered healthy eating programs

UK startup Oviva, which sells a digital support offering, including for Type 2 diabetes treatment, dispensing personalized diet and lifestyle advice via apps to allow more people to be able to access support, has closed $80 million in Series C funding — bringing its total raised to date to $115M.

The raise, which Oviva says will be used to scale up after a “fantastic year” of growth for the health tech business, is co-led by Sofina and Temasek, alongside existing investors AlbionVC, Earlybird, Eight Roads Ventures, F-Prime Capital, MTIP, plus several angels.

Underpinning that growth is the fact wealthy Western nations continue to see rising rates of obesity and other health conditions like Type 2 diabetes (which can be linked to poor diet and lack of exercise). While more attention is generally being paid to the notion of preventative — rather than reactive — healthcare, to manage the rising costs of service delivery.

Lifestyle management to help control weight and linked health conditions (like diabetes) is where Oviva comes in: It’s built a blended support offering that combines personalized care (provided by healthcare professionals) with digital tools for patients that help them do things like track what they’re eating, access support and chart their progress towards individual health goals.

It can point to 23 peer-reviewed publications to back up its approach — saying key results show an average of 6.8% weight loss at 6 months for those living with obesity; while, in its specialist programs, it says 53% of patients achieve remission of their type 2 diabetes at 12 months.

Oviva typically sells its digitally delivered support programs direct to health insurance companies (or publicly funded health services) — who then provide (or refer) the service to their customers/patients. Its programs are currently available in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and France — but expanding access is one of the goals for the Series C.

“We will expand to European markets where the health system reimburses the diet and lifestyle change we offer, especially those with specific pathways for digital reimbursement,” Oviva tells TechCrunch. “Encouragingly, more healthcare systems have been opening up specific routes for such digital reimbursement, e.g., Germany for DiGAs or Belgium just in the last months.”

So far, the startup has treated 200,000 people but the addressable market is clearly huge — not least as European populations age — with Oviva suggesting more than 300 million people live with “health challenges” that are either triggered by poor diet or can be optimised through personalised dietary changes. Moreover, it suggests, only “a small fraction” is currently being offered digital care.

To date, Oviva has built up 5,000+ partnerships with health systems, insurers and doctors as it looks to push for further scale by making its technology more accessible to a wider range of people. In the past year it says it’s “more than doubled” both people treated and revenue earned.

Its goal is for the Series C funding is to reach “millions” of people across Europe who need support because they’re suffering from poor health linked to diet and lifestyle.

As part of the scale up plan it will also be growing its team to 800 by the end of 2022, it adds.

On digital vs face-to-face care — setting aside the potential cost savings associated with digital delivery — it says studies show the “most striking outcome benefits” are around uptake and completion rates, noting: “We have consistently shown uptake rates above 70% and high completion rates of around 80%, even in groups considered harder to reach such as working age populations or minority ethnic groups. This compares to uptake and completion rates of less than 50% for most face-to-face services.”

Asked about competition, Oviva names Liva Healthcare and Second Nature as its closest competitors in the region.

“WW (formally Weight Watchers) also competes with a digital solution in some markets where they can access reimbursement,” it adds. “There are many others that try to access this group with new methods, but are not reimbursed or are wellness solutions. Noom competes as a solution for self-paying consumers in Europe, as many other apps. But, in our view, that is a separate market from the reimbursed medical one.”

As well as using the Series C funding to bolster its presence in existing markets and target and scale into new ones, Oviva says it may look to further grow the business via M&A opportunities.

“In expanding to new countries, we are open to both building new organisations from the ground up or acquiring existing businesses with a strong medical network where we see that our technology can be leveraged for better patient care and value creation,” it told us on that.

 

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google A.I. scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Spotify expands its radio DJ-like format, Music + Talk, to global creators

Last fall, Spotify introduced a new format that combined spoken word commentary with music, allowing creators to reproduce the  radio-like experience of listening to a DJ or music journalist who shared their perspective on the tracks they would then play. Today, the company is making the format, which it calls “Music + Talk,” available to global creators through its podcasting software Anchor.

Creators who want to offer this sort of blended audio experience can now do so by using the new “Music” tool in Anchor, which provides access to Spotify’s full catalog of 70 million tracks that they can insert into their spoken-word audio programs. Spotify has said this new type of show will continue to compensate the artist when the track is streamed, the same as it would elsewhere on Spotify’s platform. In addition, users can also interact with the music content within the shows as they would otherwise — by liking the song, viewing more information about the track, saving the song, or sharing it, for example.

The shows themselves, meanwhile, will be available to both free and Premium Spotify listeners. Paying subscribers will hear the full tracks when listening to these shows, but free users will only hear a 30-second preview of the songs, due to licensing rights.

The format is somewhat reminiscent of Pandora’s Stories, which was also a combination of music and podcasting, introduced in 2019. However, in Pandora’s case, the focus had been on allowing artists to add their own commentary to music — like talking about the inspiration for a song — while Spotify is making it possible for anyone to annotate their favorite playlists with audio commentary.

Since launching last year, the product has been tweaked somewhat in response to user feedback, Spotify says. The shows now offer clearer visual distinction between the music and talk segments during an episode, and they include music previews on episode pages. To date, creators have produced “tens of thousands” of shows using the format, Spotify told TechCrunch, but the company isn’t providing exact numbers at this time.

The ability to create Music + Talk shows was previously available in select markets ahead of this global rollout, including in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.

With the expansion, creators in a number of other major markets are now gaining access, including Japan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia. Alongside the expansion, Spotify’s catalog of Music + Talk original programs will also grow today, as new shows from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, India, Japan, and the Philippines will be added.

Spotify will also begin to more heavily market the feature with the launch of its own Spotify Original called “Music + Talk: Unlocked,” which will offer tips and ideas for creators interested in trying out the format.

Privacy-oriented search app Xayn raises $12M from Japanese backers to go into devices

Back in December 2020 we covered the launch of a new kind of smartphone app-based search engine, Xayn.

“A search engine?!” I hear you say? Well, yes, because despite the convenience of modern search engines’ ability to tailor their search results to the individual, this user-tracking comes at the expense of privacy. This mass surveillance might be what improves Google’s search engine and Facebook’s ad targeting, to name just two examples, but it’s not very good for our privacy.

Internet users are admittedly able to switch to the U.S.-based DuckDuckGo, or perhaps France’s Qwant, but what they gain in privacy, they often lose in user experience and the relevance of search results, through this lack of tailoring.

What Berlin-based Xayn has come up with is personalized, but a privacy-safe web search on smartphones, which replaces the cloud-based AI employed by Google et al. with the innate AI in-built into modern smartphones. The result is that no data about you is uploaded to Xayn’s servers.

And this approach is not just for “privacy freaks”. Businesses that need search but don’t need Google’s dominant market position are increasingly attracted by this model.

And the evidence comes today with the news that Xayn has now raised almost $12 million in Series A funding led by the Japanese investors Global Brain and KDDI (a Japanese telecommunications operator), with participation from previous backers, including the Earlybird VC in Berlin. Xayn’s total financing now comes to more than $23 million.

It would appear that Xayn’s fusion of a search engine, a discovery feed and a mobile browser has appealed to these Asian market players, particularly because Xayn can be built into OEM devices.

The result of the investment is that Xayn will now also focus on the Asian market, starting with Japan, as well as Europe.

Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-founder and CEO of Xayn said: “We proved with Xayn that you can have it all: great results through personalization, privacy by design through advanced technology and a convenient user experience through clean design.”

He added: “In an industry in which selling data and delivering ads en masse are the norm, we choose to lead with privacy instead and put user satisfaction front and center.”

The funding comes as legislation such as the EU’s GDPR or California’s CCPA have both raised public awareness about personal data online.

Since its launch, Xayn says its app has been downloaded around 215,000 times worldwide, and a web version of its app is expected soon.

Over a call, Lundbæk expanded on the KDDI aspect of the fund-raising: “The partnership with KDDI means we will give users access to Xayn for free, while the corporate — such as KDDI — is the actual customer but gives our search engine away for free.”

The core features of Xayn include personalized search results; a personalized feed of the entire internet, which learns from their Tinder-like swipes, without collecting or sharing personal data; and an ad-free experience.

Naoki Kamimeada, partner at Global Brain Corporation said: “The market for private online search is growing, but Xayn is head and shoulders above everyone else because of the way they’re re-thinking how finding information online should be.”

Kazuhiko Chuman, head of KDDI Open Innovation Fund, said: “This European discovery engine uniquely combines efficient AI with a privacy-protecting focus and a smooth user experience. At KDDI, we’re constantly on the lookout for companies that can shape the future with their expertise and technology. That’s why it was a perfect match for us.”

In addition to the three co-founders (Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, chief executive officer, Professor Michael Huth, chief research officer, and Felix Hahmann, chief operations officer), Dr Daniel von Heyl will come on board as chief financial officer. Frank Pepermans will take on the role of chief technology officer and Michael Briggs will join as chief growth officer.

European refurbished electronics marketplace Refurbed raises $54M Series B

Refurbed, a European marketplace for refurbished electronics which raised a $17 million Series A round of funding last year has now raised a $54 million Series B funding led by Evli Growth Partners and Almaz Capital.

They are joined by existing investors such as Speedinvest, Bonsai Partners and All Iron Ventures, as well as a group of new backers — Hermes GPE, C4 Ventures, SevenVentures, Alpha Associates, Monkfish Equity (Trivago Founders), Kreos, Expon Capital, Isomer Capital and Creas Impact Fund.

Refurbed is an online marketplace for refurbished electronics that are tested and renewed. These then tend to be 40% cheaper than new, and come with a 12-month warranty included. The company claims that in 2020, it grew by 3x and reached more than €100M in GMV.

Operating in Germany, Austria, Ireland, France, Italy and Poland, the startup plans three other countries by the end of 2021.

Riku Asikainen at Evli Growth Partners said: “We see the huge potential behind the way refurbed contributes to a sustainable, circular economy.”

Peter Windischhofer, co-founder of refurbed, told me: “We are cheaper and have a wider product range, with an emphasis on quality. We focus on selling products that look new, so we end up with happy customers who then recommend us to others. It makes people proud to buy refurbished products.”

The startup has 130 refurbishers selling through its marketplace.

Other Players in this space include Back Market (raised €48M), Swappa (US) and Amazon Renew. Refurbed also competes with Rebuy in Germany, Swapbee in Finland.

Independent retailer platform Creoate raises $5M Seed led by Fuel Ventures

Creoate is a startup, which lets independent retailers buy sustainable products from brands and wholesalers, has raised a $5m Seed round led by Fuel Ventures with participation from Vinted founder, Justas Janauskas. 

Its competitors include traditional wholesalers who’ve supplied independent retailers for decades, and other startups such as Faire (US, raised $696M) and Ankorstore (FR, raised €115M).


Founders Ashley Horn and Fahad Khan say the company aims at helping independent businesses and “reclaims the supply chain from global giants”. Khan says ‘Mom and Pop’ are “faced with poor information, discriminatory pricing and unpredictable cash flows.”

Creoate, which doesn’t own inventory, says it helps retailers forecast which products will sell well so that they can buy and manage inventory levels more easily. It says its cataloging software allows retailers to deal with fewer middlemen.

Launched in January 2020 the platform now claims 25,000 retailers across the UK, France, and Netherlands.

Creoate co-founder Horn said: “Sourcing brands as an independent retailer is close to impossible… We could see that this system was not sustainable and there had to be a better way”. 

Mark Pearson, founder and managing partner at Fuel Ventures said: “Unless you’re in the world of retail, it can be difficult to truly grasp just how broken the system is for the 2.5 million retailers and 30 million emerging brands that Creoate serves. We are captivated by Creoate’s technology which is inspired by the founding team’s real-world experience and empathy.”