All posts in “Startups”

Italic launches its marketplace for affordable luxury goods from top manufacturers

A new startup called Italic says it’s already received more than 100,000 signups for a marketplace where you can buy handbags, eyewear and other luxury products directly from the manufacturers who work with the world’s best-known brands.

The marketplace is officially launching today. Italic is also announcing that it’s raised $13 million in funding from Comcast Ventures, Global Founders Capital, Index Ventures, Ludlow Ventures and others.

Founder and CEO Jeremy Cai previously co-founded the Y Combinator-backed hiring startup OnboardIQ (now known as Fountain.com), so this sounds like a pretty big change. However, Cai said he comes from a family in the manufacturing business, so he was acutely aware of the challenges facing manufacturers.

“The history of manufacturing has been about margins,” he said. “Even though they make the final product, they barely make a profit.”

Under the traditional model, it’s the brands that buy the goods from the manufacturers and make the real profit by marking up prices. So Cai saw an opportunity to remove the brands from the equation — Italic handles the consumer-facing side of the business, like product design and marketing, but it doesn’t actually buy anything. Instead, it operates more like a marketplace, connecting consumers and manufacturers.

Jeremy Cai

This also means the manufacturers are assuming more of the risk around the initial cost of creating the products, but Cai said that in return, they get much more of the upside. And apparently, Italic’s initial partners “jumped at the opportunity”: “They’ve been waiting for an option like this to get to get direct-to-consumer.”

Under the Italic model, the manufacturers remain anonymous, but the company says customers will be able to purchase handbags and leather goods from factories that work with Prada, Christian Louboutin and Givenchy; eyewear from a factory that works with EssilorLuxottica; bedding factories that work with Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons; and leather jackets from the same factory as J Brand.

Cai said this model also means consumers will pay significantly less than they would for luxury goods — most of the handbags will cost less than $300, the prescription eyewear will cost less than $100, leather jackets will be around $425 and bedding will be priced between $80 and $120. You’ll certainly be able to find cheaper products elsewhere, but the idea is sell to “the middle 40 percent” of consumers who are interested in high-quality products but want to be “a lot more frugal and smart with their dollars.”

And while Cai declined to specify the commission that Italic is charging manufacturers, he did say it differs from industry to industry, and added, “Our manufacturers make several multiples more than they make with their current brand clients.”

During our conversation, Cai repeatedly emphasized the difference between Italic and many of the new direct-to-consumer brands that have emerged online (such as Warby Parker and Casper).

Italic

When I wondered whether the marketplace vs. brand distinction will be lost on most consumers, he replied, “On the design side, we’re extremely intentional. We’re designing it with the messaging that we operate differently, you’re buying from a merchant who is an anonymous manufacturer. The sole intention is that when someone asks you, ‘Where did you get that handbag?’ you say, ‘I got this handbag from Italic, on Italic.’ The goal is to operate more like a retailer without any brands.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that Italic is itself a sort of brand, albeit with a unique business model.

“At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say we aren’t building a brand,” he said. “But the brand of Italic [should be that] we can consistently bring you high quality products at an incredible price point.”

Italic will operate on a membership model, which Cai said will allow the company to control demand, since quantities are limited. It also allows the company to solicit product feedback from members, and there could be other benefits like shipping discounts. Members who signup initially will get a year for free, but it will eventually cost $120 annually.

Spotify alums create Canopy content suggester that won’t steal your data

Personalization comes at a steep price. All your data gets sucked up into a company’s servers where they can do whatever they want with it. But Canopy is a new content discovery startup that’s invented impressive technology that lets it learn about you anonymously while all your data stays on your device. Built by the co-founder and CTO of Echo Nest, the music data startup Spotify acquired to power its recommendations, Canopy wants to turn privacy into a competitive advantage. It plans to equip any content app with its tech that crunches your biographical and behavior data on your phone or computer so all it sends along are clues to what you want to see or hear next.

But first, Canopy will launch its own proof of concept app early next year that suggests long-form articles and podcasts based on your taste and activity. “There hasn’t been a great solution to private discovery. We think the reason people haven’t been excited about privacy is that they haven’t seen the opportunities” says Canopy founder and CEO Brian Whitman. “We are totally changing the value exchange of the internet” adds Canopy’s head of product strategy and former Spotify Director Of Music Publishing Annika Goldman. Matrix Partners is betting on Canopy’s privacy-safe vision for the future, leading a $4.5 million seed round for the startup.

That seems wise considering Whitman built one of the world’s most beloved content recommendation engines: Spotify’s Discover Weekly. “I’ve been doing music recommendation stuff since 2000” Whitman tells me. He left in 2015, and started to become disallusioned about “how much power we had put in algorithmic decision making and personalization. All your information goes to their servers.” Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal only confirmed his views. “All this data is now being used against people. You’re getting bad recommendations, bad ads, and people are being radicalized.”

A year or two ago he started discussing the idea of building a content recommendation engine that didn’t require your actual data as inputs. He came up with a solution where “Instead of sending thousands of data points to the server we can keep all that personal data on your phone” Goldman explains. “Take Spotify for example. You listen to a song. It knows where you listened to that, it know how long you listened to it, it knows what you did next — all this stuff they don’t need to know to make music recommendations. We condense and summarize all that information and send it as a single vector – a effectively a summary of things you might like and we make it impossible to reverse engineer the vector to understand the data behind it.”

She likens the system to a model of the content world on Canopy’s servers. Rather than sending it your past activity, personal info, and intentions, it just sends a set of coordinates of where you want the recommendations to go next. The 11-person Canopy team is now building out its app that will ask you questions and watch your consumption behavior to tune its suggestions. Since podcasts and longer articles aren’t owned by any one service, they’re an easy starting point for Canopy, though it eventually hopes to be content agnostic. And since it never has to suck up your data, there’s no risk of it being stolen in a breach.

That’s a big selling point for Canopy’s software-as-a-service it plans to license its tech to other apps.”Being able to build a platform that can understand your data without the liability of user data is gamechanging” Whitman declares.

Still, the biggest question facing the company is “Do people really care about privacy?” Every day we learn of a new hack attack, data exposure, or company selling our private info, but we go right on surfing. Even Facebook’s growth rate has only dipped slightly in the wake of all its privacy troubles. But Goldman believes that’s because it’s become so overwhelming that people “have a head in the sand view on privacy. ‘Hh my god, all my data is out there. I’m at risk. What do I do about it?’ Well I want to give people a way to do something about it”. Namely, trust Canopy instead of the data grabbers.

But if people can’t be tought the value of privacy, it’s hard to see partners going to the trouble of buidling in Canopy’s system. Whitman admits that services would take a modest hit to their recommendation accuracy if they adopt Canopy. He’s hoping the long-term goodwill of users will offset that. On the horizon, he predicts “there’s a great awakening of awareness.”

WeWork hires Prabhdeep Singh to lead operations for its startup program WeWork Labs

WeWork has hired Prabhdeep Singh to serve as the first global head of operations for its startup program WeWork Labs.

It’s a program that relaunched earlier this year, providing early-stage startups with desk space, educational programs and mentorship. Since the relaunch, the company says it’s opened in more than 24 locations in 14 cities across nine countries, and it’s already working with more than 1,000 startups.

“When you think about WeWork assets, it’s this massive global footprint that’s really at the nexus of startups, big corporations, small corporations, innovators, etc.,” Singh said. “With WeWork labs, you can think of it as an innovation platform that supports these early-stage startups.”

Singh was most recently at Uber, where he held a number of roles including head of enterprise at Uber Eats. He’s also led the corporate innovation division at Gerson Lehrman Group and co-founded the FinTech Innovation Lab, an incubator for financial tech startups.

While you can think of WeWork Labs as the coworking giant‘s take on an accelerator or incubator, Singh noted that there are a few key differences. For one thing, WeWork isn’t taking any equity: “We give you a really fair deal on discounted space in a WeWork area with a dedicated Labs manager.” (Pricing differs depending on the location — in Seattle, it’s $390 per person per month, while in Manhattan it’s $550.)

For another, WeWork labs is simply working with a lot more startups.

“We’re thinking about this fundamentally differently,” Singh said. “We’re not [Y Combinator with] a class of 100 startups where you get the TechCrunch writeup and that helps you scale … The idea isn’t necessarily that someone is going to say, ‘You should give me a million dollars in VC because I’m in WeWork labs.’ We hope to give them the tools to pitch to that VC, the tools for sales and marketing.”

Singh will be working with WeWork Labs’ global head Roee Adler — the company explained that while Adler is focused on the program’s bigger picture, Singh will be handling operations and overseeing the individual Labs managers in each location.

Singh said his background in corporate innovation could help WeWork Labs build more relationships with larger organizations looking to get connected with the startup community. For example, the program collaborated with Mercer over the summer on a “technology sprint.”

In addition, one of his goals is to continue expanding the programs to new locations — not just in the obvious startup hubs, but also “where we can add the most value.”

“One of the benefits of being part of WeWork is, we have this massive footprint already,” Singh said. “If you go to New York or Silicon Valley, there’s already 100 incubators or accelerators. If you go to the middle of the country, or China, or go to a place like Sao Paulo where we have four spaces already, this is really a filling a market need.”

Apex.AI raises $15.5 million for autonomous-vehicle software

Apex.AI is emerging out of stealth today with quite the claim — an operating system for autonomous vehicles that will never fail. Founded by long-time automated systems engineers Jan Becker and Dejan Pangercic, Apex.AI develops operating systems for various types of autonomous mobility platforms.

Today, Apex.AI is also announcing a $15.5 million Series A round led by Canaan with participation from Lightspeed Venture Partners, which invested in Apex.AI’s seed round.

Apex.AI’s software stack is designed to easily integrate into existing systems and serve as the enterprise version of the Robot Operating System, an open-source software middleware for robotics.

“Most companies have expertise building consumer applications, but not a lot of expertise, resources or people to work on safety-critical processes,” Becker told TechCrunch. “So we built a framework that allows developers that are not experienced building safe and secure systems to do just that.”

In order to never fail, Apex.AI has built redundancies into the system to ensure single failures don’t result in system-wide failures.

“We go through every line of code and guarantee that safety-critical processes get the amount of compute time needed to execute,” Becker said.

Apex.AI is application agnostic, meaning this can be used in all autonomous systems — ranging from cars to drones to flying taxis.

Apex.AI competes with the likes of Renovo, which earlier this year unveiled AWare OS designed for Level 4 autonomous driving.

“What excited us about Apex is they are solving a real problem,” Canaan partner Rayfe Gaspar-Asaoka told TechCrunch. “Now that we have the right technological pieces in place, how do we move this from R&D into mass production — fully self-driving vehicles for the average consumer to use. As that happens, the number one question will be how do we ensure that this vehicle in this whole system works 100 percent of the time. Safe and reliable all of the time.”

LocalGlobe, the London seed-stage VC, is raising a new fund aimed at Series B

LocalGlobe, the seed-stage venture capital firm founded by father and son duo Robin and Saul Klein, and one of the most active firms in the U.K., is gearing up to launch a new separate fund aimed at Series B.

According to sources — and since confirmed by LocalGlobe — the VC firm is raising a sister fund to formally back the most promising startups in its portfolio to help them scale.

It isn’t unheard for LocalGlobe to follow on after seed during later funding rounds, having done so in successful companies such as Zoopla and TransferWise. However, the thinking here is to have a separate fund to make this more common, and provide LPs a way to double down on LocalGlobe’s most promising bets.

The new fund is to be called “Latitude,” whist a recent regulatory filing mistakenly and inadvertently surfaced “Senderwood,” the holding company of LocalGlobe and Latitude. It is not known how much Latitude is looking to raise from LPs, although this is aimed at Series B so I’d expect it to be larger than LocalGlobe’s most recent £75 million fund.

TechCrunch has also learned that Julian Rowe has joined Latitude as a Partner from JP Morgan, where having moved back from Silicon Valley he latterly was EMEA Head of Internet and Digital Media and worked closely with successful U.K. scale-ups like Farfetch and Deliveroo.

LocalGlobe’s Robin Klein will also be heavily involved in the new Series B fund, formalising a role he has increasingly taken at LocalGlobe. Saul Klein is the third member of the Latitude team.

LocalGlobe issued the following statement, confirming the existence of Latitude, but declined to comment further:

“LocalGlobe’s new and existing investors are excited about the opportunity to invest in UK tech companies, both at seed and as they scale up, justifiably since the U.K. has now produced 60 unicorns or 35% of the total from Europe and Israel. We are exploring the technicalities of laying the foundations of a new fund, to be known as Latitude, for launch in 2019. This will enable us to invest in the most successful companies that are coming through from previous LocalGlobe funds at Series B and beyond. Initial conversations with investors have been going well and they are excited about the prospect of a new way to invest in some of the UK’s best early stage tech companies.”

Update: Oscar Williams-Grut at Yahoo Finance reports that Latitude’s debut fund is looking to raise $200 million (£156.5m).