All posts in “Fundings & Exits”

French VC firm Ring Capital raises $170 million fund


Meet Ring Capital, a brand new VC firm based in Paris. The firm just raised a new $170 million fund (€140 million) and might still be raising another $10 million or so for this fund.

Many new VC firms tend to focus on seed rounds at first. Ring Capital thinks there’s a Series A and Series B gap in France. That’s why Ring Capital plans to invest around €5 to €10 million ($6 to $12 million) in each company — sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less.

Ring Capital has already invested in one company and plans to invest in around 15 companies using this fund. Of course, there might be more funds down the road.

“We’ve been investing in tech startups for 15 years,” Nicolas Celier told me. “When growth picks up, that’s when you need to sell the company because you’re already thinking about the next fund.”

Ring Capital wants to reverse this trend and invest a bit later. The fund even says that it is willing to buy back some shares to partially cash out founders, early employees and early investors.

Celier says that many private equity firms are looking at tech startups because it’s a big opportunity right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that private equity firms have the technical knowledge to bet on winners.

From day one, Ring Capital has put together a team of investors who don’t share the same background and can provide additional value.

Geoffroy Bragadir was both an investor and an entrepreneur. Nicolas Celier is a venture capitalist at heart. Alban de La Breteche has a technical background and worked on research and development projects at Criteo. Marie-Capucine Lemétais was Head of Marketing Western Europe for the Danish Fintech Saxo Bank. Nicolas Bailly worked with Bragadir as an analyst. Thomas Marsal worked on data operations for Stuart. Hagera Sendabad was Operations Manager at Mention.

“Beyond the technical background of the team, when you’re in the tech industry, you can see that most companies that gain long-term value have technological assets,” Bragadir told me. “We think we have an ability to understand complex tech challenges. We can leverage that and foster those technological assets.”

Limited partners include Bpifrance through the “Programme d’Investissements d’Avenir”, AG2R La Mondiale, BRED, Danone and Tikehau Capital. Around 75 business angels, such as Morgane Sézalory (Sézane), Hugues Le Bret (Compte Nickel), Thierry Petit (Showroomprivé), also invested in Ring Capital and are willing to help portfolio companies with introductions and advice.

Many of those mentors were CTOs or engineers. The firm tried to invite as many technical people as possible, even if they could only invest a limited amount of money in the fund. So it’s clear that Ring Capital is going to be looking at tech startups with a strong tech product.

AI voice assistant developer Rokid raises $100M Series B extension to build its US presence

Rokid founder and CEO Mingming Zhu

Rokid, a Chinese startup that makes an AI voice assistant and smart devices, just raised a Series B extension round led by Temasek Holdings, with participation from Credit Suisse, IDG Capital and CDIB Capital. The size of the round was not released, but a source familiar with the deal told TechCrunch that it is $100 million.

The company’s previous funding was its Series B round, which was announced in November 2016. Founder and chief executive officer Mingming Zhu says Rokid raised a Series B+ instead of a C round because the company, which is based in Hangzhou, China with research centers in Beijing and San Francisco that develop its proprietary natural language processing, image processing, face recognition and robotics technology, is still in its early stages. Rokid wants to focus on gathering more resources and bringing in strategic investors like Temasek Holdings before moving on to a Series C. An investment holding company owned by the Singaporean government, Temasek Holdings counts artificial intelligence and robotics among its main investment areas and its other portfolio companies include Magic Leap.

Rokid Glass

The company’s product lineup already includes smart speakers called Rokid Pebble and Alien, which are currently sold in China. During CES, Rokid debuted its newest offering, Rokid Glass, augmented glasses created specifically for consumer use, as well as an open-source platform, called the Rokid Full Stack Open Platform. Created in partnership with Alibaba, the platform gives third-party hardware developers who use Rokid’s voice assistant access to free resources, including software blueprints and content for IoT devices. Rokid hopes that both will help build its name recognition and presence in the United States.

Reynold Wu, Rokid’s director of product management, describes the Full Stack Open Platform as a turnkey solution that not only gives developers access to Rokid’s AI technology, but also hardware solutions and services. Released with Aliyun, Alibaba’s cloud computing business, the cloud platform opened to third-party developers in China earlier this year, and will launch in the U.S. soon.

Rokid wants the platform to serve as a bridge between the two countries by giving U.S. developers an easy way to enter the Chinese market and also encouraging the development of more content for devices running Rokid’s technology, which founder and chief executive officer Mingming Zhu says is vital to attracting consumers.

“AI products are born to be global, not just for local market,” explains Zhu. “The only issue for Rokid is that we’re not ready for the U.S. market because the most important thing is content and we are not ready if there is only local content or services.”

The Pebble and Alien will be up against Google Home and Amazon Echo, which have become almost synonymous with “smart speaker” in the minds of many consumers, while Rokid Glass will inevitably be compared to Google Glass. The success of the Pebble and Alien hinge not only on how well users think Rokid’s voice assistant compares to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, but also the library of content and apps that the startup is able to build for its smart speakers.

While Google Glass flopped among consumers, but saw more success as an enterprise device. Rokid hopes its smart glasses, which run on its proprietary AI voice and imaging algorithms, will be able to succeed where Google Glass wasn’t because it was designed specifically for consumer applications. Early reviews from CES say the Rokid Glass is promising and praised features like face recognition, but said it still needs work to become more responsive. Once it goes on sale, the Rokid Glass will compete with smart glasses from Vuxiz, Sony and Epson. Its price hasn’t been revealed yet, but Zhu says it will be sold at a consumer-friendlier price point than its competitors (many augmented reality smart glasses from Rokid’s rivals are currently priced in the range of $600 to $1,500).

“I think we are the only product that is really consumer-centric in not only design and weight, but also energy use,” says Wu. “A lot of players design for the enterprise market first and then try consumer opportunities, but we have developed consumer products over the past three years. All of them have entered the market successfully and we have users because of that, so we have confidence in our consumer products.”

Featured Image: Rokid

Ledger raises another $70 million to become the leader in cryptocurrency hardware wallets


Ledger just raised an impressive Series B round of $70 million, led by Draper Esprit. The startup already raised a $7 million round last year. But the cryptocurrency mania probably made it easy to raise more money.

If you have more than a bit of money in cryptocurrencies, chances are you’ve heard about Ledger wallets. The French startup has been designing some of the most secure hardware wallets out there. If you don’t want to get hacked, get a Ledger wallet.

FirstMark Capital, Cathay Innovation, Korelya Capital and existing investors CapHorn Invest, GDTRE and Digital Currency Group also invested in today’s round. Ledger says that the round was oversubscribed, and that it is the largest Series B round in a cryptocurrency startup when you exclude ICOs.

The company has sold a million hardware wallets in 2017. While this sounds impressive, it’s even more impressive when you compare it to 2016. Ledger only sold 30,000 wallets in 2016 — it represents a 33x year-over-year increase.

And this is key to understanding Ledger’s wallet. Few people predicted the cryptocurrency boom of 2017. That’s why Ledger has been struggling with keeping up with orders. When you buy a Ledger Nano S today, you’re going to get delivered in March 2018.

So the company is going to use today’s funding round to ramp up production and solve those back-order issues. It’s important to note that Ledger is already profitable. Ledger currently has 82 employees in Paris, San Francisco and Vierzon.

The company also plans to launch the Ledger Vault, a security solution for banks, hedge funds and family offices that want to invest in cryptocurrencies.

“For the wallets, we integrated our operating system in a secure chip, and for the Vault, we are integrating it in a hardware security module,” Ledger co-founder and CEO Eric Larchevêque told me. “The idea behind it is to provide additional features and services, such as multiaccounts, multisignature or timelocks.”

Ledger is the equivalent of a gold pick manufacturer. When there’s a gold rush, the one selling the gold picks end up with more money than people looking for gold.

Disclosure: I own small amounts of various cryptocurrencies.

Natural home products startup Grove Collaborative bets niche wins over the Amazonization of everything


Who needs Amazon when you can make your own online distribution channel? At least, that’s the idea behind Grove Collaborative, a natural home care products company that ships natural cleaning brands like Method and Mrs. Meyer’s.

Co-founder Stuart Landesberg started the company in 2014 after working with retail brands during his time as an investor at TPG. He noticed how limited shelf space was for brands in brick-and-mortar stores and the idea came to him to launch a tech company that could help move products by prompting consumers to buy at the ideal time. The company pivoted to online retail products in 2016 and rebranded itself as Grove Collaborative.

But consumers have a lot of choices in this space and the brands offered through Grove could just as easily get to your door through same-day shipping on Amazon.

As unlikely as it seems a customer would turn to Grove when there’s the convenience of Target or Amazon, Landesberg tells TechCrunch the company has raked in “tens of millions of dollars” in revenue and that it has “hundreds of thousands” of active customers. He also says more than half of Grove’s customers have never shopped natural before.

Still, he admits there’s no special sauce here. The company is not trying to compete with lower prices and it offers similar prompts as Amazon to re-up supply when you’re likely to be out. But he says the difference is incumbents often prioritize profit over customers and environmental health.

Those numbers also look promising and VC’s have been eager to support Grove on its journey. The startup just pulled in $35 million in Series C funding led by Norwest Venture Partners. The funding comes right on the heels of a $15 million Series B, which quietly closed last March and was led by Mayfield VC.

The primary use of the funding will go toward marketing, which Landesberg told TechCrunch is mostly through influencers such as health bloggers and YouTube personalities with a following in the space.

The startup will also use some of that money to build out new offerings from the main Grove brand, which include items such as hand sanitizer, essential oils, moisturizers and natural sponges.

“Families want to make safe, sustainable, informed choices, and that’s how e-commerce can catalyze real progress,” Landesberg said. “This funding allows us to bring natural products to more homes, and help us build a brand that can serve our community unconstrained by the realities of offline sales.”

BMW acquires Parkmobile parking app to help tackle city traffic


BMW has acquired Parkmobile, an app that provides guidance and services for those looking for parking in North America, including on-street and garage parking payments and spot reservation. BMW Group had already held a minority investment in the company, and owned its Parkmobile Group Europe affiliate, but today it increased its holdings to reach majority ownership of Parkmobile, LLC, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia.

This will provide BMW with a significant foothold in the U.S. parking services market, since Parkmobile is available in over 300 cities stateside, including NYC, Philadelphia and Phoenix, to name just a few. Parkmobile will become part of BMW Group’s Mobility Services portfolio, which is expanding in scope and influence now that mobility is an area of increasing interest for automakers in general.

The Parkmobile acquisition will also help address a growing issue for anyone seeking to get people around within cities: Traffic. BMW points out that as much as 30 percent of traffic in any given city is caused by people looking for spots to park. Especially when a city is unfamiliar, figuring out where and when you can park is a daunting challenge, and one that can cause a lot of hesitation and stop-start driving on busy streets.

Parkmobile processed 50 million transactions from people finding parking in North America last year, and reach over 8 million registered users. It also worked with BMW on building its services directly into the vehicle, and I’d expect that to continue now that they’re one and the same.