All posts in “funding”

Gig workers need health & benefits. Catch is their safety net

One of the hottest Y Combinator startups just raised a big seed round to clean up the mess created by Uber, Postmates, and the gig economy. Catch sells health insurance, retirement savings plans, and tax withholding directly to freelancers, contractors, or anyone uncovered. By building and curating simplified benefits services, Catch can offer a safety net for the future of work.

“In order to stay competitive as a society, we need to address inequality and volatility. We think Catch is the first step to offering alternatives to the mandate that benefits can only come from an employer or the government” writes Catch co-founder and COO Kristen Tyrrell. Her co-founder and CEO Andrew Ambrosino, a former Kleiner Perkins design fellow, stumbled onto the problem as he struggled to juggle all the paperwork and programs companies typically hire an HR manager to handle. “Setting up a benefits plan was a pain. You had to be come an expert in the space, and even once you were, executing and getting the stuff you needed was pretty difficult.” Catch does all this annoying but essential work for you.

Now Catch is getting its first press after piloting its product with tens of thousands of users. TechCrunch caught wind of its highly competitive seed round closing, and Catch confirms it’s raised $5.1 million at a $20.5 million post-money valuation co-led by Khosla Ventures, NYCA Partners, and Steve Jang. This follow-up to its $1 million pre-seed will fuel its expansion into full heath insurance enrollment, life insurance, and more.

“Benefits, as a system built and provided by employers, created the mid-century middle class. In the post-war economic boom, companies offering benefits in the form of health insurance and pensions enabled familial stability that led to expansive growth and prosperity” recalls Tyrell, who was formerly the director of product at student debt repayment benefits startup FutureFuel.io. “Emboldened by private-sector growth (and apparent self-sufficiency), the 1970s and 80s saw a massive shift in financial risk management from the government to employers. The public safety net contracted in favor of privatized solutions. As technological advances progressed, employers and employees continued to redefine what work looked like. The bureaucratic and inflexible benefits system was unable to keep up. The private safety net crumbled.”

That problem has ballooned in recent years with the advent of the on-demand economy where millions become Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, DoorDash deliverers, and TaskRabbits. Meanwhile, the destigmatization of remote work and digital nomadism has turned more people into permanent freelancers and contractors, or full-time employees without benefits. “A new class of worker emerged: one with volatile, complex income streams and limited access to second-order financial products like automated savings, individual retirement plans, and independent health insurance. We entered the new millennium with rot under the surface of new opportunity from the proliferation of the internet” Tyrrell declares. “The last 15 years are borrowed time for the unconventional proletariat. It is time to come to terms and design a safety net that is personal, portable, modern, and flexible. That’s why we built Catch.”

Catch co-founders Andrew Ambrosino and Kristen Tyrrell

Currently Catch offers the following services, each with their own way of earning the startup revenue:

  • Health Explorer lets users compare plans from insurers and calculate subsidies, while Catch serves as a broker collecting a fee from insurance providers
  • Retirement Savings gives users a Catch robo-advisor compatible with IRA and Roth IRA, while Catch earns the industry standard 1 basis point on saved assets
  • Tax Withholding provides an FDIC-insured Catch account that automatically saves what you’ll need to pay taxes later, while Catch earns interest on the funds
  • Time Off Savings similarly lets you automatically squirrel away money to finance ‘paid’ time off, while Catch earns interest

These and the rest of Catch’s services are curated through its Guide. You answer a few questions about what benefits you have and need, connect your bank account, choose what programs you want, and get push notifications whenever Catch needs your decisions or approvals. It’s designed to minimize busy work so if you have a child, you can add them to all your programs with a click instead of slogging through reconfiguring them all one at a time. That simplicity has ignited explosive growth for Catch, with the balances it holds for tax withholding, time off, and retirement balances up 300% in each of the last three months.

In 2019 it plans to add Catch-branded student loan refinancing, vision and dental enrollment plus payments via existing providers, life insurance through a partner such as Ladder or Ethos, and full health insurance enrollment plus subsidies and premium payments via existing insurance companies like Blue Shield and Oscar. And in 2020 it’s hoping to build out its own blended retirement savings solution and income smoothing tools.

If any of this sounds boring, that’s kind of the point. Instead of sorting through this mind-numbing stuff unassisted, Catch holds your hand. Its benefits Guide is available on the web today and it’s beta testing iOS and Android apps that will launch soon. Catch is focused on direct-to-consumer sales because “We’ve seen too many startups waste time on channels/partnerships before they know people truly want their product and get lost along the way” Tyrrell writes. Eventually it wants to set up integrations directly into where users get paid.

Catch’s biggest competition is people haphazardly managing benefits with Excel spreadsheets and a mishmash of healthcare.gov and solutions for specific programs. 21 percent of Americans have saved $0 for retirement, which you could see as either a challenge to scaling Catch or a massive greenfield opportunity. Track.tax, one of its direct competitors, charges a subscription price that has driven users to Catch. And automated advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront accounts don’t work so well for gig workers with lots of income volatility.

So do the founders think the gig economy, with its suppression of benefits, helps or hinders our species? “We believe the story is complex, but overall, the existing state of
the gig economy is hurting society. Without better systems to provide support for freelance/contract workers, we are making people more precarious and less likely to succeed financially.”

When I ask what keeps the founders up at night, Tyrrell admits “The safety net is not built for individuals. It’s built to be distributed through HR departments and employers. We are very worried that the products we offer aren’t on equal footing with group/company products.” For example, there’s a $6,000/year IRA limit for individuals while the corporate equivalent 401k limit is $19,000, and health insurance is much cheaper for groups than individuals.

To surmount those humps, Catch assembled a huge list of angel investors who’ve built a range of financial services including Nerdwallet founder Jake Gibson, Earnest founders Louis Beryl and Ben Hutchinson, ANDCO (acquired by Fiverr) founder Leif Abraham, Totem founder Neal Khosla, Commuter Club fonder Petko Plachkov, Playable (acquired by Stripe) founder Tad Milbourn, and Synapse founder Bruno Faviero. It also brough on a wide range of venture funds to open doors for it. Those include Urban Innovation Fund, Kleiner Perkins, Y Combinator, Tempo Ventures, Prehype, Loup Ventures, Indicator Ventures, Ground Up Ventures, and Graduate Fund.

Hopefully the fact that there are three lead investors and so many more in the round won’t mean that none feel truly accountable to oversee the company. With 80 million Americans lacking employer-sponsored benefits and 27 million without health insurance and median job tenure down to 2.8 years for people ages 25 to 34 leading to more gaps between jobs, our workforce is vulnerable. Catch can’t operate like a traditional software startup with leniency for screw-ups. If it can move cautiously and fix things, it could earn labor’s trust and become a fundamental piece of the welfare stack.

Movius raises $45M for its business communications service

Atlanta-based Movius, a company that allows companies to assign a separate business number for voice calls and texting to any phone, today announced that it has raised a $45 million Series D round led by JPMorgan Chase, with participation from existing investors PointGuard Ventures, New Enterprise Associates and Anschutz Investment company. With this, the company has now raised a total of $100 million.

In addition to the new funding, Movius also today announced that it has brought on former Adobe and Sun executive John Loiacono as its new CEO. Loiacono was also the founding CEO of network analytics startup Jolata.

“The Movius opportunity is pervasive. Almost every company on planet Earth is mobilizing their workforce but are challenged to find a way to securely interact with their customers and constituents using all the preferred communication vehicles – be that voice, SMS or any other channel they use in their daily lives,” said Loiacono. “I’m thrilled because I’m joining a team that features highly passionate and proven innovators who are maniacally focused on delivering this very solution. I look forward to leading this next chapter of growth for the company.”

Sanjay Jain, the chief strategy officer at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Larry Feinsmith, the head of JP Morgan Chase’s Technology Innovation, Strategy & Partnerships office are joining the company’s board.

Movius currently counts more than 1,400 businesses as its customers and its carrier partners include Sprint, Telstra and Telefonica. What’s important to note is that Movius is more than a basic VoIP app on your phone. What the company promises is a carrier-grade network that allows businesses to assign a second number to their employee’s phones. That way, the employer remains in charge, even as employees bring their own devices to work.

Camera maker Insta360 raises $30M as it eyes 2020 IPO

Insta360, one of the pioneers in making 360-degree cameras, just raised $30 million in a Series C+ funding round from Chinese investors including Everest Venture Capital, MG Holdings and Huajin Capital.

The Shenzhen-based camera maker declines to disclose its latest valuation. It plans to use the fresh proceeds in research and development, marketing and after-sales services in its key international markets including the United States and Japan, which are the company’s second and third-largest markets behind China.

Some of its past backers include IDG Capital, Qiming Ventures, home appliance maker Suning Holdings Group and file sharing service Xunlei.

The company started making 360 cameras — thus the brand name — in 2014 when founder Liu Jingkang saw a gap in the market for compact, easy-to-use cameras shooting high-definition 360-degree footage. Over the years it has evolved into a four-pronged business covering all sorts of needs: 360 cameras for professionals and amateur users creating virtual reality content, action cameras for sports lovers, and smartphone accessories for average consumers.

In stark contrast to loss-making GoPro, which Insta360 rivals in the action camera vertical, the Chinese firm has been profitable since 2017 and is planning to file for an initial public offering in China next year, Liu told TechCrunch in an interview. The company declined to provide more details of the planned flotation but said the success of its action camera line has helped it achieve five-times revenue growth in two years and reach profitability.

From professionals to amateurs

Though the VR sector remains in its infant stage, Liu is optimistic that 360 content will become a much sought-after media form in the years to come.

“Many families will be consuming virtual reality content for entertainment in the future, so we have a huge market for 360 content. That’s why we make a 360 camera each year to keep our top-tier position,” said Liu.

insta360

The Insta360 One X / Photo: Insta360

The action camera market, by comparison, is more mature. Insta360 is riding a larger social trend of live blogging and short-form videos that has generated a huge demand for quality video content. Dozens of camera options, from Snap Spectacles to Tencent’s clone of the Snap glasses, are available to help people churn out content for video sharing apps, but Liu saw problems in many of these products.

“[Video-shooting] spectacles, for examples, are quite offensive. Not everyone wants to wear them,” said the founder. “Many cameras do a bad job at video stabilization, so people end up with unusable footage. Lastly, and this is the key issue, users don’t know how to handle their footage.”

To that end, Insta360’s latest answer to documenting sports events and traveling is a camera that can easily be held in hand or slipped into a pocket. Called the One X, the gadget shoots in 5.7K resolution at 30 frames per second, delivering pleasingly smooth stabilization even when thrown around. The camera also comes with a software toolkit that automatically selects and stitches users’ footages together, which makes sharing to TikTok and Instagram a cinch. Check out TechCrunch’s review of One X below:



Insta360 has also been chasing after the masses and its latest bid is an add-on lens that can instantly turn an iPhone into a 360-degree camera. The idea is that as users get a taste of the basic 360-degree experience, they may want to upgrade to a higher-end model.

“Insta360 has a rare ability to take cutting-edge imaging tech and put it into products that consumers want to use today,” said Gavin Li, senior director at Huajin Capital. “They’re moving faster and innovating more than their competitors, and they’re taking bold new approaches to the defining communication tool of our time: the camera.”

ProdPerfect gets $2.6 million to automate QA testing for web apps

ProdPerfect, a New York-based startup focused on automating QA testing for web apps, has announced the close of a $2.6 million Seed round co-led by Eniac Ventures and Fika Ventures, with participation from Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator.

ProdPerfect started when cofounder and CEO Dan Wilding was VP of engineering at WeSpire, where he saw firsthand the pain points associated with web application QA testing. Whereas there were all kinds of product analytics tools for product engineers, the same data wasn’t there for the engineers building QA tests that are meant to replicate user behavior.

He imagined a platform that would use live data around real user behavior to formulate these QA tests. That’s how ProdPerfect was born. The platform sees user behavior, builds tests, and delivers analysis to the engineering team.

The service continues to build on what it knows about a product, and can then simulate new tests when new features are added based on aggregated flows of common user behavior. This data doesn’t track any information about the user, but rather anonymizes them and watches how they move through the web app. The hope is that ProdPerfect gives engineers the opportunity to keep building the product instead of spreading their resources across building a QA testing suite.

The new funding will go toward expanding the sales team and further building out the product. For now, ProdPerfect simply offers functional testing, which users a single virtual user to test whether a product breaks or not. But President and cofounder Erik Fogg sees an opportunity to build more integrated testing, including performance, security and localization testing.

Fogg says the company is growing 40 percent month over month in booked revenue.

The company says it can deploy within two weeks of installing a data tracker, and provider more than 70 percent coverage of all user interactions with 95 percent+ test stability.

“The greatest challenge is going to be finding people who share our companies core values and are of high enough talent, ambition, and autonomy in part because our hiring road map is so steep,” said Fogg. “Growing pains catch up with businesses as a team expands quickly and we have to make sure that we’re picky and that we reinforce the values we have.”

Determined AI nabs $11M Series A to democratize AI development

Deep learning involves a highly iterative process where data scientists build models and test them on GPU-powered systems until they get something they can work with. It can be expensive and time-consuming, often taking weeks to fashion the right model. Determined AI, a new startup wants to change that by making the process faster, cheaper and more efficient. It emerged from stealth today with $11 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by GV (formerly Google Ventures) with help from Amplify Partners, Haystack and SV Angel. The company also announced an earlier $2.6 million seed round from 2017 for a total $13.6 million raised to date.

Evan Spark, co-founder and CEO at Determined AI says that up until now, only the largest companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft could set up the infrastructure and systems to produce sophisticated AI like self-driving cars and voice recognition technologies. “Our view is that a big reason why [these big companies] can do that is that they all have internal software infrastructure that enables their teams of machine learning engineers and data scientists to be effective and produce applications quickly,” Spark told TechCrunch.

Determined’s idea is to create software to handle everything from managing cluster compute resources to automating workflows, thereby putting some of that big-company technology in reach of any organization. “What we exist to do is to build that software for everyone else,” he said. The target market is Fortune 500 and Global 2000 companies.

The company’s solution is based on research conducted over the last several years at AmpLab at the University of California, Berkeley (which is probably best known for developing Apache Spark). It used the knowledge generated in the lab to build sophisticated solutions that help make better use of a customer’s GPU resources.

“We are offering kind of a base layer that is scheduling and resource sharing for these highly expensive resources, and then on top of that we’ve layered some services around workflow automation.” Spark said the team has generated state of the art results that are somewhere between five and 50 times faster than the results from tools that are available to most companies today.

For now, the startup is trying to help customers move away from generic kinds of solutions currently available to more customized approaches using Determined AI tools to help speed up the AI production process. The money from today’s round should help fuel growth, add engineers and continue building the solution.