All posts in “Startups”

Driving down the cost of preserving genetic material, Acorn Biolabs raises $3.3 million

Acorn Biolabs wants consumers to pay them to store genetic material in a bet that the increasing advances in targeted genetic therapies will yield better healthcare results down the line.

The company’s pitch is to “Save young cells today, live a longer, better, tomorrow.” It’s a gamble on the frontiers of healthcare technology that has managed to net the company $3.3 million in seed financing from some of Canada’s busiest investors.

For the Toronto-based company, the pitch isn’t just around banking genetic material — a practice that’s been around for years — it’s about making that process cheaper and easier.

Acorn has come up with a way to collect and preserve the genetic material contained in hair follicles, giving its customers a way to collect full-genome information at home rather than having to come in to a facility and getting bone marrow drawn (the practice at one of its competitors, Forever Labs) .

“We have developed a proprietary media that cells are submerged in that maintains the viability of those cells as they’re being transported to our labs for processing,” says Acorn Biolabs chief executive Dr. Drew Taylor.

“Rapid advancements in the therapeutic use of cells, including the ability to grow human tissue sections, cartilage, artificial skin and stem cells, are already being delivered. Entire heart, liver and kidneys are really just around the corner. The urgency around collecting, preserving and banking youthful cells for future use is real and freezing the clock on your cells will ensure you can leverage them later when you need them,” Taylor said in a statement.

Typically, the cost of banking a full genome test is roughly $2,000 to $3,000, and Acorn says they can drop that cost to less than $1,000. Beyond the cost of taking the sample and storing it, Acorn says it will reduce to roughly $100 a year the fees to store such genetic materials.

It’s important to note that healthcare doesn’t cover any of this. It’s a voluntary service for those neurotic enough or concerned enough about the future of healthcare and their potential health. 

There’s also no services that Acorn will provide on the back end of the storage… yet.

What people do need to realize is that there is power with that data that can improve healthcare. Down the road we will be able to use that data to help people collect that data and power studies,” says Taylor. 

The $3.3 million the company raised came from Real Ventures, Globalive Technology, Pool Global Partners and Epic Capital Management and other undisclosed investors.

“Until now, any live cell collection solutions have been highly expensive, invasive and often painful, as well as being geographically limited to specialized clinics,” said Anthony Lacavera, founder and chairman at Globalive. “Acorn is an industry-leading example of how technology can bring real innovation to enable future healthcare solutions that will have meaningful impact on people’s wellbeing and longevity, while at the same time — make it easy, affordable and frictionless for everyone.”

We Company CEO in hot water over being both a tenant and a landlord

The company formerly known as WeWork has come under scrutiny for potential conflict of interest issues regarding CEO Adam Neumann’s partial ownership of three properties where WeWork is (or will be) a tenant. TechCrunch has seen excerpts of the company’s prospectus for investors that details upwards of $100 million in total future rents WeWork will pay to properties owned, in part, by Adam Neumann.

In March 2018, The Real Deal reported that Neumann had purchased a 50 percent stake in 88 University Place alongside fashion designer Elie Tahari. That property was then leased by WeWork, which then leased space within the building to IBM.

Today, the WSJ is reporting that 88 University Place isn’t alone. Neumann also personally invested in properties in San Jose that are either currently leased to WeWork as a tenant or are earmarked for such a purpose. Unlike 88 University where Neumann is a 50/50 owner with Tahari, the CEO of the We Company — as WeWork is now known — invested in the two San Jose properties as part of a real estate consortium and owns a smaller stake of an unspecified percentage.

These transactions were all disclosed in the company prospectus documents it filed as part of its $700 million bond sale in April 2018. According to the prospectus, WeWork’s total future rents on these properties (partially owned by Neumann) are $110.8 million, as of December 2017.

That doesn’t include the reported $65 million purchase of a Chelsea property by Neumann and partners, which is said to be earmarked for a new WeLive space built from the ground up. That, too, will be subject to rent payments from the WeCompany to run WeLive out of it.

This raises questions of whether there is a conflict of interest in Neumann being both the landlord and the tenant of properties through WeWork. The WSJ says that investors of the company are concerned that the CEO could personally benefit on rents or other terms with the company in these deals.

According to WeWork, however, the company has not been made aware of any issues by any of its investors about related party transactions or their disclosures. The company also said that the majority of the Board are independent of Adam and all of these transactions were approved.

A WeWork spokesperson also had this to say: “WeWork has a review process in place for related party transactions. Those transactions are reviewed and approved by the board, and they are disclosed to investors.”

As it stands now, The We Company is privately held and in the midst of a transition as it contemplates how to turn a substantial profit on its more than 400 property assets across the world. The company is taking a broad-stroke approach, serving tiny startups and massive corporate clients alike, while also offering co-living WeLive spaces to renters and building out the Powered By We platform to spread its bets.

The company is valued at a hefty $47 billion, even after a scaled back investment from SoftBank (which went from $16 billion to $2 billion). But as the We Company inches toward an IPO, we may start to see a call for tighter corporate governance and more scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest.

HyperScience, the machine learning startup tackling data entry, raises $30 million Series B

HyperScience, the machine learning company that turns human readable data into machine readable data, has today announced the close of a $30 million Series B funding round led by Stripes Group, with participation from existing investors FirstMark Capital and Felicis Ventures as well as new investors Battery Ventures, Global Founders Fund, TD Ameritrade, and QBE.

HyperScience launched out of stealth in 2016 with a suite of enterprise products focused on the healthcare, insurance, finance and government industries. The original products were HSForms (which handled data-entry by converting hand-written forms to digital), HSFreeForm (which did a similar function for hand-written emails or other non-form content) and HSEvaluate (which could parse through complex data on a form to help insurance companies approve or deny claims by pulling out all the relevant info).

Now, the company has combined all three of those products into a single product called HyperScience. The product is meant to help companies and organizations reduce their data-entry backlog and better serve their customers, saving money and resources.

The idea is that many of the forms we use in life or in the workplace are in an arbitrary format. My bank statements don’t look the same as your bank statements, and invoices from your company might look different than invoices from my company.

HyperScience is able to take those forms and pipe them into the system quickly and easily, without help from humans.

Instead of charging by seat, HyperScience charges by documents, as the mere use of HyperScience should mean that fewer humans are actually ‘using’ the product.

The latest round brings HyperScience’s total funding to $50 million, and the company plans to use a good deal of that funding to grow the team.

“We have a product that works and a phenomenally good product market fit,” said CEO Peter Brodsky. “What will determine our success is our ability to build and scale the team.”

Techstars will build and launch startups with new venture studio

Similar to Y Combinator, early-stage technology startup accelerator Techstars has spent much of the last decade supporting and seeding innovative projects, including Plated, ClassPass, SendGrid and PillPack. Now, it wants to take its service a step further.

Today, Techstars is announcing the launch of Techstars Studio, a new venture that will have the accelerator developing and launching venture-scale businesses with the support of several corporate partners. Leveraging its large network of entrepreneurs, Techstars has invited large companies to co-create startups targeting specific challenges within their industry. Techstars says it has signed on 25 corporate partners so far, each of which will pay an annual membership fee to access an early look at the Techstars Studio projects, as well as updates from the team, as concepts transition into prototypes then to full-fledged companies.

Techstars Studio plans to complete four full spin-outs per year and will identify talent from within its network to lead each venture. The companies will be seeded with a varying amount of capital depending on the business’s needs.

The news is the latest in a series of developments from within Techstars that illustrate the accelerator’s bid to marry corporations and the startup ecosystem. On top of the startup studio, Techstars announced in September a Network Engagement Program, which offers concierge-style connections for corporations looking to build relationships with startups and a 54-hour Innovation Bootcamp, which teaches corporate employees “to rapidly identify and validate solutions for critical business problems.”

“We think of ourselves as the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed — this will help entrepreneurs in our world be successful,” Techstars co-founder and co-chief executive officer David Cohen told TechCrunch. “We have the history and the talent to do it but this is new for us, so we have to build that muscle.”

Cohen will lead the studio along with portfolio co-founder Isaac Saldana, who will serve as chief technology officer. Saldana co-founded Techstars-backed SendGrid, an email platform acquired by Twilio for $2 billion in October. Mike Rowan, SendGrid’s former vice president, and Sabrina Kelly, Techstars VP of talent, have also joined the new effort.

A slew of Techstars-backed founders have also signed on to advise the projects, including the founders of Remitly, Sphero and DataRobot.

Founded in 2006, Techstars now operates 44 programs in 14 countries with more than 1,600 companies in its portfolio.

Instamojo raises $7M to help SMEs and ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ in India sell online

In India, startups are quietly building the tools and platforms to enable a different kind of gig economy: one that allows “micro-entrepreneurs” to tap growing access to the internet to sell goods and services online.

One such firm helping this burgeoning economy is Instamojo, a seven-year-old Bengaluru-based startup, which has pulled in a $7 million Series B as it aims to grow its reach to more than one million SMEs and micro-SMEs in India.

Founded in 2012 as a side project, Instamojo offers independent merchants the means to operate a mobile-optimized storefront, collect payment and even take micro-loans. In an interview with TechCrunch, CEO and co-founder Sampad Swain said the company has some 650,000 merchants, and it is adding a further 1,200 daily. Most of them, he said, tend to earn less than $30,000 in annual sales; with around half selling physical products, such as e-commerce items, and the remainder using Instamojo to invoice for physical services or sell digital items such as courses.

The idea is to tap into those just testing the water of online commerce and give them the tools to ramp up their fledgling enterprise as India’s internet “population” rises past 400 million people.

“A lot of micro-merchants in India are adopting [India’s payment service] UPI [through services like Paytm and PhonePe] but once they become a little more serious, at around 10-20 sales per month, we ask: ‘Can we give you lending, logistics, online store?’” explained Swain, who started the business with co-founders Akash Gehani and Aditya Sengupta.

It’s a market that few banks or financial institutions care about because small loans and sales require enormous scale to be relevant to them. But Swain is bullish, and he believes the company will pass one million retailers this year.

The new funding is led by existing investor AnyPay — the Japanese fintech startup — with other returning backers Kalaari Capital and Beenext, and angel investor Rashmi Kwatra joining. Gunosy Capital, the VC arm of Japanese news app Gunosy, joined as a new investor. The deal takes Instamojo to around $9 million from investors to date.

Instamojo collects revenue through a two percent cut on sales, a fee on successful deliveries and commission on its micro-loan product, which essentially gives merchants advanced credit (same-day or next-day) on their sales. The loans — which Swain describes as “sachet” lending — are from Instamojo’s recently established Mojo Capital unit, which includes partnerships with 12 financial organizations. In just four months, Instamojo has dished out around $4 million in credit — through 50,000-odd dispersions — and Swain predicts it will scale to a $30 million run rate before the end of this year.

“Even I am surprised!” he said of the rapid uptake.

Instamojo founders [left to right] Akash Gehani, Sampad Swain and Aditya Sengupta

Unlike Meesho, a YC-backed micro-entrepreneurship service in India that recently raised $50 million, Instamojo isn’t dominated by e-commerce to friends, family and neighbors. Swain said typical Instamojo sellers look to access audiences outside of people they know, with platforms like YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and others commonly used to reach audiences. Instamojo’s big selling point is ease of sale; that’s through a unique link that sellers share with customers for the check-out, therein bypassing some of the challenges of online payment in India, which include somewhat cumbersome steps for card transactions.

“Sellers just create a link and share it with the customer,” Swain explained. “Essentially they click and check out with debit or credit card or other means. Over the years we realized that’s the best beginning for our business.”

That was Instamojo’s first launch, and since then it has built out online store options to manage inventory and product as well as the recent credit launch. Beyond growing its scale, Swain said the next big focus is on developing a community for merchants, where they can share tips, collaborate and more. He is also aiming to increase the tech team and raise Instamojo’s headcount from 120 right now to around 250 by 2020.

For now, Swain said the company isn’t seeking overseas opportunities, although he did admit that the business could expand to regions like Africa or Southeast Asia. But more immediately, he sees a huge opportunity in India, where he believes there are 65 million SMEs, of which 25 million are “micro-merchants,” to tackle initially. The company is planning a Series C round for later this year to finance a deeper push.

Article updated 1/16/19 07:55 PST to correct the names of the company co-founders.