All posts in “Startups”

Latest episode of ‘Bubbleproof’ showcases a partnership with unusual terms

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Silicon Valley is a land of ideation and thinkfluence and Qi drinks with tapioca mushroom protein.

In this fourth episode of Bubbleproof, an original mockumentary series on the influence and ignorance of Silicon Valley, we get a closer look at the evolving/devolving relationship between startup founder guru Michael Fertik and venture capitalist David Cowan (who co-wrote the series with Fertik and director Martin Sweeney).

The episode, “Gravity is My Co-Pilot,” highlights the inaugural meeting of David and Michael’s new team and displays the different planes the two are operating on. This happens while a joint interview between the two showcases just how differently each views Cowan’s role as a partner in this venture.

Check out episode 4 of Bubbleproof above. If you haven’t seen the ones before it, check them out here.

People with chronic illnesses and disabilities get their own media channel with The Mighty

There’s a corkboard in the kitchen at the office of The Mighty, the social network for people with chronic illnesses, mental health disorders and disabilities, which has pictures and letters from many of the site’s thousands of contributors and readers who have benefited from the stories the site shares.

It’s there to remind the company’s staffers of the faces behind the work they do and the impact that the site has on its legion of readers and writers.

For The Mighty founder, Mike Porath, the site’s mission is as much a personal story as it is a professional one. In a piece announcing the company’s launch in 2014, Porath wrote about his family’s own struggles.

Porath’s two-year-old daughter suffers from a rare genetic disorder, diagnosed the same day that his pregnant wife, Sarah, received news that the baby she was carrying would likely be born without at least one organ.

Lying in bed that night we were shaken and lost. This was not the life or family we had planned. I remember feeling small and hollow, a powerless husband and father. Whether it was a futile attempt to comfort my wife or a way for me to make sense of it all, I told her that we were going to do something good with this. How, she asked. I had no idea. We were in tears.

The Porath’s struggled through the adversity, in part through the help of a community of supporters, and from that experience The Mighty was born.

The founders (Porath’s wife is in charge of human resources) have gone from that post three years ago to create a community that now numbers more than 1 million members and has raised $8.2 million in new financing.

Initially, the Porath’s bootstrapped the business and within a few months had gotten the website up and hired Meg Griffo, a Huffington Post writer, as their editor. Within a year the company grew from 2,000 to 20,000 visits per day, which was when Joanne Wilson came on as a seed investor.

The corkboard in the offices of The Mighty

At first, the site was more of a Huffington Post-style platform for authors to share their experiences, but as it has evolved, it has created a hub-and-spoke approach, with community members able to take on more autonomy and create topics and post content on their own.

To give a sense of the company’s scale, there are 15 editors and writers on staff, helping out a population of more than 10,000 unpaid contributors.

Now the company has partnered with the advertising giant WPP, which started a new health and wellness vertical earlier this year. The partnership with WPP will allow The Mighty’s contributing storytellers to reach a new audience — the doctors that treat them or care for their family members, loved ones and friends.

“Through their clients in healthcare, they saw the rise in patient-centered approaches and a shift toward more content marketing,” Porath said of the deal with WPP. “We fit both of these trends, as we have authentic stories coming from personal perspectives. We’ve opted to run sponsored posts rather than the kind of branded drug ads that you’ll find on WebMD and similar publishers.”

These revenue-generating opportunities will open up the prospect of payment for The Mighty’s contributors (one could almost view them as micro-influencers) as more sponsored content begins to appear on The Mighty’s pages. While contributors share their personal stories, they do not recommend any treatments or pitch any products, according to Porath.

So the company avoids any potential liabilities that would potentially arise from an influx of snake-oil salesmen. There’s nothing to sell.

Mike and Sarah Porath’s daughter, Annabel

It’s been a long road for the Los Angeles-based company, and one that seed investors like Joanne Wilson, Brad Feld (through the FG Angel syndicate) and Upfront Ventures have been happy to traverse.

New lead investor GGV Capital and WPP, which participated in the financing, were intrigued by the company’s 1 million community members, 10 million-strong newsletter subscriber base and the addition of 5,000 new signups for the newsletter every month.

The incipient revenue that the company is generating from sponsored posts, videos and surveys likely also helped buoy investor confidence in the burgeoning media site.

Porath says the company’s mission is to “empower and connect people facing health conditions and disabilities,” and the company has been staffing to ensure that it can successfully achieve that goal.

Peter Wang has joined the company as its new chief technology officer, coming from similar roles at Refinery 29 and Buddy Media — both successful media properties.

Now, with the additional staff, The Mighty will be building out new features like a Quora-style question and answer service and one-to-one messaging.

“The day someone gets a diagnosis, The Mighty will be the place to go to find support and guidance for whatever journey someone is on,” Porath wrote to me in an email.

It’s all part of what Porath sees as a bigger challenge for the business — to create a social network designed to appeal to hundreds of millions of users worldwide.

About 10 percent of the company’s visitors already come from countries outside of the U.S., Canada and the U.K., where English isn’t the native language, according to Porath. And one of the reasons why the company turned to GGVC as a new lead investor, and Hans Tung as the company’s latest board member, is so they can tap the firm’s experience growing internationally.

China, for instance, which is a huge focus for GGVC, has an incredible need for new healthcare services.

“We share our happiest moments on networks like Facebook and Instagram, but they are not the place most people want to share their vulnerable moments,” Porath writes. “We’ve built a brand and safe space that more than a million people have joined, but reaching global scale requires that we deliver so much more value to our members.”

Featured Image: Kelsey Weyerbacher

“Self-regulating” nanoparticles can burn cancer without harming healthy cells

Researchers at the University of Surrey and Dalian University of Technology in China have created a form of nanoparticle that can heat up and kill cancerous cells and then self-regulate to avoid burning healthy cells. The particles can raise their temperature between 42°C to 45°C, hot enough to kill cancer cells. Once they reach a set temperature they back off, ensuring that healthy cells are spared.

“The Zn-Co-Cr ferrite nanoparticles produced for this study are self-regulating, meaning that they self-stop heating when they reach temperatures over 45°C. Importantly, the nanoparticles are also low in toxicity and are unlikely to cause permanent damage to the body,” wrote the researchers in a release.

“This could potentially be a game changer in the way we treat people who have cancer. If we can keep cancer treatment set at a temperature level high enough to kill the cancer, while low enough to stop harming healthy tissue, it will prevent some of the serious side effects of vital treatment,” said Professor Ravi Silva, Head of the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey.

In magnetic-induced hyperthermia a magnetically active chemical into a tumor. The magnetism is converted to heat which essentially burns out the tumor but can also affect other parts of the body. This system controls the temperature automatically, reducing the need for external temperature management.

Small startup shows us the wrong way to incentivize programmers

A small Los Angeles-based company, Bee Technologies, recently made a stir on Reddit by asking potential unpaid interns to complete a fairly complex software product before they were “hired.” The resulting conversation is interesting simply because it shows where “passion” for a job stops and “ridiculousness” starts.

The exchange began innocuously enough. A programmer, Sina Astani, applied to the unpaid internship, fully willing to take a quick salary hit to try something new. Bee’s response was this:

Thank you for applying for the Back End Software Development Intern position. Before we we get you in for an interview, you will need to pass this development test: Project Guideline: Here at Bee we are content heavy, so this project is designed to test how well you can manage content. Here, the front-end would like to send a JSON encoded API request to your server in order to upload a photo to the site. It is on you to create an endpoint that can handle this upload, then find a way to view all the photos that have been uploaded to the site in an efficient manner.

While programming tests are common in tech and unpaid internships are not unheard of, this request goes above and beyond. Bee is asking interns to create an integral part of their technology, from scratch, for free. Uploading a JSON-encoded images using a public API is one thing. Displaying all of those uploaded images “in an efficient manner” begins to seem like work. Then there was the response. Astani asked about the job and Bee replied.

“Happy to clarify,” wrote one of the founders. “This position is paid after a 3 month training. This is non-negotiable and keeps us from hiring engineers that end up being toxic to our long term goals and just looking for a pay day. As for the project, you will have one week from today. We wish you the best of luck and hope to have you on our team within the month!”

The Reddit poster, Sina Astani, is an experienced dev working on a MS in computer science. He found the test to be a little excessive.

“I don’t think highly of any company that asks you to do free work for them before any kind of personal contact,” he said. “I’ve been interviewed by Google, Hulu, IBM, and worked at a startup. This is ridiculous.”

“I would not complete the project. Its basically asking me to build their platform, then I get to work for free for three months with their ‘leading engineers.’ Its totally out of line. I don’t know anyone, except maybe for someone who is naive and without experience who would do such a thing. The fact that they post this on Indeed is offensive.”

There is, obviously, a fine line between asking someone to work for free because they will soon be an integral part of the organization and asking someone to work for free because you can. In fact, had the company simply hired for the “Junior Front End Engineer” they had posted and offer 2-5% of equity, they would have been fine. Plenty of people have bet on startups that failed and worked for sweat equity.

But then there’s this line, full of high-tech hubris and bravado:

I’ve reached out to the company but they’ve pulled most of their social media presence and I haven’t heard back on any channel. It would behoove them to remember, however, that there is a fine line between “disruption” and “opportunism.” In this case, they crossed it.

UPDATE – Bee writes:

We were shocked. It was especially hard having to sit there knowing that I had spent weeks reading California law and working with the team to create a program that helped us find fellow college students who wanted to work with us to create something cool (people we currently have on our team). We are just four college kids with no money trying to change the way people connect with their brands. We knew we couldn’t cut six figure checks, so we set aside 5% of our company to give to employees and offered college credit to those still in school.

I don’t think this was a good strategy. There is no way to explain how hard we worked to do the right thing and our job post should have gone into more detail. One of our core values is transparency and I now realize our job posting and my emails do not achieve that. All I needed to do was call him and explain our situation and none of this would have happened. 

I thought that people would assume we did things the right way and I was mistaken. We are now going to be very forthcoming about it being unpaid. Historically, that was the first email I sent after they applied. I didn’t for this job, and it was a mistake. Especially when it comes to the engineering community, there are a lot of companies that try to take advantage of young engineers. A lot of the hate we received seemed to be about something more than our post – it’s the way companies take advantage of their skills for free. From now on, I will be fully transparent from the original job post. We do not want to be one of those companies and are doing everything we can to make Bee worth it.

Kenzie Academy is an ambitious project to bring tech jobs to Middle America

The most logical thing to do when you decide to step back from your successful startup, which didn’t end up in the deadpool like the other 99 percent, is to take some time off. Appreciate things. Enjoy the fact that years of work paid off, literally. Watch your kids grow up, get an expensive hobby, chill.

These are all things that Chok Ooi, co-founder of little-known but lucrative outsourcing company, could have done. But instead, the Malaysia-born entrepreneur is throwing himself into a new project that hopes to help battle the tech talent crunch and bring skilled jobs to the middle of America.

That’s definitely not a beach house.

Despite his youthful looks, Ooi — who arrived in the U.S. as a student in 1999 and has worked in Wall Street and at tech startups — knows a thing or two about hiring through

The company uses an innovative model to outsource work with a focus on quality. Business development offices in New York and Singapore seek out client projects — for example those wanting to hit the gas right after funding but don’t want to wait months to hire a team — which are then carried out by a team of over 200 tech staff based at the firm’s office in Da Nang, Vietnam.

To date, over 120 clients, including Fortune 500 firms and startups in Silicon Valley, have used the services of, which utilizes a hybrid model to place its staff remotely into client teams. Most impressive of all, though: The Vietnamese tech team is trained in-house and all started from scratch with no coding ability.’s team of coders in Vietnam are the inspiration for this ambitious U.S. project

Work to learn

Earlier this year, Ooi stepped back from daily activity at and relocated from New York to make room for his newest venture, Kenzie Academy, an educational project aimed at adapting the model to help get Middle America in on the tech boom.

Alongside him are co-founders Rehan Hasan (COO) and Courtney Spence (CMO) who have experience in educational projects like non-profit media company Students of the World and Denver-based gSchool.

The principal idea behind Kenzie — which is named after Ooi’s youngest daughter — is to address the gap between higher education and the world of employment. That’s in the form of a work-focused school that transitions students into the world of work with the skills they need, while helping talent-hungry tech firms fill vacant roles in a more efficient way.

The project starts in Indianapolis — where Ooi once lived as a student — with plans to open to an initial cohort of 25 students in January 2018. The options are flexible but the main focus of the program is to equip students with the knowledge and experience to go out into the world and take a tech job while growing Indianapolis and Indiana as a startup destination.

The Kenzie Academy’s three founders

The focus is on learning-by-doing, and — like — the academy will operate its own consultancy that will be powered by students. To prepare for the world of work, the cohort will have up to six months of training from an on-site team and also learn remotely through a network of mentors.

“People will come to Kenzie to work and learn, versus getting lectured,” Ooi told TechCrunch in a recent interview.

“Our curriculum is heavily project-based and there is no lecture model. The way we designed the space heavily caters towards that. It’s intentionally designed to look like a real startup working environment. There’s no lecture hall and students learn materials online — getting together in small groups to hold discussions with instructors who are more coaches or mentors versus someone who is teaching you,” he added.

The first courses on offer include a six-month program to become a junior front-end developer, a year-long course to become a full-stack developer, and a two-year course that covers coding and computer science.

The course aren’t free, however, and they start at $12,000 with longer courses offering cash-back for students who take on client work.

Ooi said that Kenzie “tries to monetize as much from the employer as possible” because that is where demand and capital sit together. But it does need a level of commitment from its students.

“We want to make sure the students are as invested as we are in them. We’ve talked to coding schools who said students who got a toll-free ride tended to be the worst students — when the going gets tough, they quit,” he explained.

Academy-based model

Once they are past the learning period, the plan is to transit them to the consultancy where they are assigned projects from paying clients to put learnings into action and provide new areas to focus their learning.

Ooi said that not only does this benefit students who get an authentic taste of employment, but employers too can get to know — and work with — potential hires well in advance of any offer of a full-time role.

Placing full-time students is the goal — Kenzie will charge a fee to employers for each hire — but it is confident that bringing employer and student together earlier makes the hiring process considerably more productive for all.

“Going through our two-year program, if a student works with the same employers, they will have worked with them for 18 months. Employers [will] know them so it is no longer a question of whether they are qualified, it’s a natural progression to go on and join these companies,” he added.

“The traditional way [to hire] is that companies approach recruiters, who send them hundreds of candidates. They do a lot of work filtering the candidates, then the hiring manager spends a lot of time interviewing. In a job interview you have a couple of hours to make a decision whether this person is the right fit or not. After that if you don’t find the perfect candidate you spend a lot of hours training them on the job,” Ooi said.

In the case of students hired before they complete the course, the Kenzie CEO is optimistic that employers will allow them to return to the academy to study because it will advance the employee’s skills and make them a more valuable asset.

Kenzie eschewed the non-profit route — Ooi and Hasan said a “mission-drive,” for-profit company gives them a “better chance of success” — so capital is a consideration. The startup raised undisclosed seed money from investors that include former executives at Google and Facebook, but it has also built itself to be sustainable.

That’s where the academy structure is beneficial because it brings in revenue that is split between the student and Kenzie. The team hopes that the potential to earn a salary for 18 months will make the course viable for more students than say an MBA. There will also be the potential for scholarships and an interest-free loan further down the line, the company said.

“It’s a very flexible model to be able to appeal to lots of different types of students in different life situations,” Hasan told TechCrunch, explaining that students will be able to defer parts of the course, for example if they get a job, and return to complete it later.

The focus on work is strong, and that’s reflected in the prices. Those more advanced courses require some knowledge of coding, so those starting from scratch are in the entry-level option.

Talent in demand

Kenzie is so confident it can deliver on employment that it is guaranteeing students that they will have a job if they complete the two-year program.

That’s nothing new, of course. Coding bootcamps, often falsely, make such bold claims leading to complaints from students who feel ripped off after investing and then not getting hired.

The startup believes it is the exception to the rule because of its hybrid model using the consultancy, the work commitment — eight hours per day, seven days a week — and the roster of startups and tech companies providing personnel and time for mentoring.

Critically, there’s also huge demand, Ooi said, pointing to some high-level examples.

One unnamed company local to Indianapolis that is providing coaching said it is looking to hire 50 engineers next year alone, while there are bigger names in the mix, too.

Salesforce, which moved into the city when it acquired ExactTarget for $2.5 billion in 2013, is currently seeking to fill over 60 vacancies in the city while Indian IT giant Infosys just leased office space that it plans to fill with 2,000 new hires.

“Salesforce began moving their operations from multiple states into Indie because they saw the opportunities here. But even taking away these big companies, today there are 2,000 unfilled tech jobs in the state. They already have a deficit because there is a huge skills gap of what the talent here is [versus] what the companies need — the demand is there, the only problem is we can’t train people fast enough,” Ooi said.

Symbolic: The Salesforce tower, opened in May 2017, is the tallest building in Indianapolis

Evidence of that gulf can be found in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, where IBM has failed to hit target hiring numbers since it moved into the region in search of growth potential in 2013.

“It is having a hard time as local schools aren’t producing students with the right skills. Now IBM is going directly to high schools to tackle the solution,” Ooi said. “That shows the depth of need, and the gap between what higher education is producing and what companies are looking for.”

Unsurprisingly, Baton Rouge and Wisconsin — where Foxconn this year pledged to invest $3 billion — are two expansions that Kenzie is considering for the future.

Ooi believes that over the next three years Kenzie can grow to handle 300-500 students per year per location with upwards of 2,000 more studying remotely. The company also plans to expand the curriculum to cover courses like dev-ops and digital marketing.

Such progress would be impressive, but clearly one company can’t fill every gap across America. Kenzie insists that its objective is to spark change more widely.

“We want to do to education what Tesla did to cars,” Ooi explained. “Tesla showed there’s a better way to build cars and now every car company is innovating. They can’t continue to produce crappy cars nobody wants.”

Middle America’s chance

For now, the focus is very much on building out the startup community in Indianapolis.

“We’re very hyper local-centric. The idea is to train raw talent in the local community, such as Indianapolis, and keep it there,” Hasan said. “Our wish is not for students in Indie to get shipped to SF — those things happen. But our real mission here is how do we build that talent pool in localities that we are actually in.

“We start by going after SME tech startups that are struggling for talent,” Ooi further outlined. “Our goal is to essentially get them to move in [to Indianapolis] first. Once they move in and we keep training more talent and [make the community] bigger, then hopefully we make the city and localities a lot more attractive to bigger tech companies that will then consider a move.”

Citing, Amazon, which is publicly seeking a city to create a second HQ, the Kenzie founders believe the timing is ideal for Middle America.

“A lot of the top contenders aren’t coastal cities, they’re actually Middle America cities so you see where the trend is. The big companies find that being in coastal cities is actually to their disadvantage because of the talent war and there is a lot of appetite to move to other parts of the country given that they can find enough talent.

“That’s where we hope to come in, to focus on the middle of the country and train up talent so that, in the long term, it becomes very attractive for these tech companies to either relocate there or open up secondary offices there,” Ooi said.

Huge tech companies bring money to the table and, while they acknowledge that the education sector can be lucrative, the Kenzie founders said they haven’t spent much time thinking about an exit. Ooi raised the potential to pay out dividends in the future, aside from a sale, but for now they are consumed with the first steps of their ambitious objective.

“We are not spring chickens; we’ve been very successful in our ventures and this is a labor of love for us,” Hasan said.

“This is very personal,” Ooi echoed. “We already made our money so for us it is really about wanting to make a change for this country. We heavily curated our investor list and turned down money that didn’t match our objectives.”