All posts in “Recent Funding”

Wove raises $9M to help companies form strategic marketing partnerships

After rebranding earlier this year and scrapping pretty much their whole mobile ads business, Wove, formerly known as TapFwd, has a fresh plan to disrupt the marketing industry.

Co-founders Eddie Siegel and Alex Wasserman have built what they call a brand collaboration network, a new way for companies to form marketing partnerships with similar brands. They say sourcing and closing a deal with another company on Wove is as easy as sending a Facebook friend request.

“Marketers don’t want to sell data with each other and they don’t want to share data with each other,” Siegel told TechCrunch. “They want to grow their core business and leverage their data assets without having to share it with another company, and they need a third party network to form these partnerships.”

With the launch of their latest product comes new money: Wove has raised $9 million in a round led by August Capital, with participation from new investors Origin Ventures, Walmart’s SVP of U.S. e-commerce Anthony Soohoo, Canaan Partners general partner Deepak Kamra and existing investors Partech Partners, Angel Pad and Tekton Ventures. Partech previously led TapFwd’s $3 million seed round.

To develop a marketing partnership with Wove, a company has to sign up and pay an annual fee. Once you have an account, Wove will make recommendations of companies — other Wove users — to work with based on their market and/or customer demographic. When a pair of companies express mutual interest, Wove handles the execution and measures the effectiveness of the partnership with its suite of digital tools built into the platform.

Here’s an example of a hypothetical partnership born out of Wove: A dog-walking startup like Wag logs onto Wove and is matched with Ollie, a dog food startup. The pair agree to set up a short-term promotion, providing discounts to Ollie customers if they set up a Wag account and vice versa. Wove then negotiates the terms of the partnership, develops the promotional materials and ultimately determines how well that partnership bolstered the businesses. 

The idea for this marketing matchmaking service came, Siegel says, from TapFwd’s customers.

“We got here because our customers pulled us over here,” Siegel said. “This originally grew as a pretty organic side project and now we are catching up to the customer demand. We have a lot more demand than we can service.”

With the $9 million investment, the San Francisco-based startup, which counts HotelTonight, Turo and Winc as customers, plans to scale its engineering team.

August Capital’s Howard Hartenbaum has joined the startup’s board of directors as part of the round.

UIpath lands $225M Series C on $3 billion valuation as robotics process automation soars

UIPath is bringing automation to repetitive processes inside large organizations and it seems to have landed on a huge pain point. Today it announced a massive $225 million Series C on a $3 billion valuation.

The round was led by CapitalG and Sequoia Capital. Accel, which invested in the companies A and B rounds also participated. Today’s investment brings the total raised to $408 million, according to Crunchbase, and comes just months after a $153 million Series B we reported on last March. At that time, it had a valuation of over $1 billion, meaning the valuation has tripled in less than six months.

There’s a reason this company you might have never heard of is garnering this level of investment so quickly. For starters, it’s growing in leaps in bounds. Consider that it went from $1 million to $100 million in annual recurring revenue in under 21 months, according to the company. It currently has 1800 enterprise customers and claims to be adding 6 new ones a day, an astonishing rate of customer acquisition.

The company is part of the growing field of robotics process automation or RPA . While the robotics part of the name could be considered a bit of a misnomer, the software helps automate a series of mundane tasks that were typically handled by humans. It allows companies to bring a level of automation to legacy processes like accounts payable, employee onboarding, procurement and reconciliation without actually having to replace legacy systems.

Phil Fersht, CEO and chief analyst at HFS, a firm that watches the RPA market, says RPA isn’t actually that intelligent. “It’s about taking manual work, work-arounds and integrated processes built on legacy technology and finding way to stitch them together,” he told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year.

It isn’t quite as simple as the old macro recorders that used to record a series of tasks and execute them with a keystroke, but it is somewhat analogous to that approach. Today, it’s more akin to a bot that may help you complete a task in Slack. RPA is a bit more sophisticated moving through a workflow in an automated fashion.

Ian Barkin from Symphony Ventures, a firm that used to do outsourcing, has embraced RPA. He says while most organizations have a hard time getting a handle on AI, RPA allows them to institute fundamental change around desktop routines without having to understand AI.

If you’re worrying about this technology replacing humans, it is somewhat valid, but Barkin says the technology is replacing jobs that most humans don’t enjoy doing. “The work people enjoy doing is exceptions and judgment based, which isn’t the sweet spot of RPA. It frees them from mundaneness of routine,” he said in an interview last year.

Whatever it is, it’s resonating inside large organizations and UIpath, is benefiting from the growing need by offering its own flavor of RPA. Today its customers include the likes of Autodesk, BMW Group and Huawei.

As it has grown over the last year, the number of employees has increased 3x  and the company expects to reach 1700 employees by the end of the year.

Erectile pharmacy app Roman raises $88M to launch ‘quit smoking’ kit

Roman is a rocket ship, and I’m not talking about how it sells Viagra and Cialis. Less than a year after launching its cloud pharmacy for erectile dysfunction with $3 million in funding and a five-person team, Roman has grown to seventy team members and a revenue run-rate in the 10s of millions — up 720 percent since January. It’s sparked over a million patient-physician visits, phone calls, and text conversations through its telemedicine portal for getting diagnoses and prescriptions.

And now Roman is ready to expand beyond men, so it’s dropping the ‘Man.

Today, the newly renamed ‘Ro’ unveiled its next product, Zero, a $129 ‘quit smoking’ kit. It contains a month’s worth of prescription cessation medication bupropion and nicotine gum, plus an app for tracking progress and learning how to stay motivated through hunger, nausea, and cravings. Pre-orders open today.

“Erectile dysfunction medication is a knee brace. It helps you to walk again but the goal would be to not need a knee brace” says Ro co-founder Zachariah Reitano, who started the company because he lives with ED himself due to a heart medication side effect. “Some people will need ED medication but we’re hoping that a lot of people, through lifestyle changes or quitting smoking, won’t need us any more.”

To get the word out about Zero to women and men alike, as well as build a physician’s electronic medical record system, Ro has also raised a jaw dropping $88 million Series A round. It was led by FirstMark Capital and joined by SignalFire, Initialized Capital, General Catalyst, Slow Ventures, Sinai Ventures, Torch Capital, BoxGroup, and Tusk Ventures. Initialized and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and FirstMark managing director Rick Heitzmann will both join Ro’s board to steward this massive infusion of capital.

Roman board member Alexia Ohanian sporting a Roman Zero hat while cheering on his wife, tennis star Serena Williams

“The plan for the money is to continue to build out our own pharmacy” as well as “a lot of the backend infrastructure that we call ‘Ro’ that will allow us to launch these other products and verticals over the next two to three years, including women’s health products, Reitano tells me. Ohanian writes that “The only thing that exceeds Ro’s execution to date is their vision for the future of healthcare. Unlike other companies in the space, Ro is full-stack and is actually rebuilding the health care experience from the ground up, which means they are able to deliver unrivaled care for patients across the country.”

Ro’s Zero kit

Until recently, 80 percent of Viagra sold online was counterfeit. That not only made it awkward to buy medication for erectile dysfunction, but also dangerous. Yet that number is starting to drop thanks to the explosion in popularity of Roman, as well as fellow direct-to-consumer men’s health startup Hims. “Roman doesn’t lend itself to the typical Instagram unboxing experience, but we get a lot of one-to-one word of mouth” Reitano says with a chuckle. SEO has also been key to revenue growth, as its the first organic search result for ‘buy Viagra’.

One of the thing that’s helped has been me sharing my story [he’s dealt with ED since he was 17], and this ‘check engine light’ concept” that views erections as indicators that a man’s body is in working order. Roman even built a somewhat-silly app called Morning Glory to help men track morning erections. Roman’s whole experience is designed to make patients comfortable with a fundamentally uncomfortable topic. “The fact that this stigma exists is why people don’t talk to their doctor or their partner” Reitano says.

Roman co-founder Zachariah Reitano

Now Ro wants to take the same clear-eyed approach to helping people quit smoking, starting by getting you to chat with its “telehealth assistant” to get paperwork sorted before you speak with a Ro doctor. The startup says that of the 37.5 million people in the US who smoke, 70 percent want to quit and 50 percent try to quit each year, but only 3 to 5 percent are smoke-free after six months. But with medication, nicotine replacement therapy like gum, tapering down smoking before stopping, and counseling, the quit rate drastically improves to 33 percent after six months.

You get all that from Zero’s kit for $129 per month, compared to $120 on Amazon for just the nicotine gum. Reitano admits that “the margin actually is not fantastic to start. Let’s say it’s slightly below what a typical commerce purchase would be.” But the idea is that if Ro and Zero can help someone quit smoking, patients will turn to it for more of their online pharmacy needs.

One barrier for Ro is that it currently doesn’t accept insurance for its $15 telemedicine appointments, Roman pills, or the Zero kit. Eventually it wants to accept FSA cards for tax-favored spending in hopes of reducing the cost for some patients, but otherwise Ro will require people to pay out-of-pocket, restricting it to wealthier segment of the population. Reitano admits that “In any space that’s incredibly competitive and highly regulated, there are things out of your control. In our control, there’s an incredible opportunity to make sure we take advantage of the infrastructure we have.”

Reitano concludes, “Honestly, I hope we can live up to what we want to build.”

Ultimate.ai nabs $1.3M for a customer service AI focused on non-English markets

For customer service, Ultimate.ai‘s thesis is it’s not humans or AI but humans and AI. The Helsinki- and Berlin-based startup has built an AI-powered suggestion engine that, once trained on clients’ data-sets, is able to provide real-time help to (human) staff dealing with customer queries via chat, email and social channels. So the AI layer is intended to make the humans behind the screens smarter and faster at responding to customer needs — as well as freeing them up from handling basic queries to focus on more complex issues.

AI-fuelled chatbots have fast become a very crowded market, with hundreds of so called ‘conversational AI’ startups all vying to serve the customer service cause.

Ultimate.ai stands out by merit of having focused on non-English language markets, says co-founder and CEO Reetu Kainulainen. This is a consequence of the business being founded in Finland, whose language belongs to a cluster of Eastern and Northern Eurasian languages that are plenty removed from English in sound and grammatical character.

“[We] started with one of the toughest languages in the world,” he tells TechCrunch. “With no available NLP [natural language processing] able to tackle Finnish, we had to build everything in house. To solve the problem, we leveraged state-of-the-art deep neural network technologies.

“Today, our proprietary deep learning algorithms enable us to learn the structure of any language by training on our clients’ customer service data. Core within this is our use of transfer learning, which we use to transfer knowledge between languages and customers, to provide a high-accuracy NLU engine. We grow more accurate the more clients we have and the more agents use our platform.”

Ultimate.ai was founded in November 2016 and launched its first product in summer 2017. It now has more than 25 enterprise clients, including the likes of Zalando, Telia and Finnair. It also touts partnerships with tech giants including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — integrating with their Contact Center solutions.

“We partner with these players both technically (on client deployments) and commercially (via co-selling). We also list our solution on their Marketplaces,” he notes.

Up to taking in its first seed round now it had raised an angel round of €230k in March 2017, as well as relying on revenue generated by the product as soon as it launched.

The $1.3M seed round is co-led by Holtzbrinck Ventures and Maki.vc.

Kainulainen says one of the “key strengths” of Ultimate.ai’s approach to AI for text-based customer service touch-points is rapid set-up when it comes to ingesting a client’s historical customer logs to train the suggestion system.

“Our proprietary clustering algorithms automatically cluster our customer’s historical data (chat, email, knowledge base) to train our neural network. We can go from millions of lines of unstructured data into a trained deep neural network within a day,” he says.

“Alongside this, our state-of-the-art transfer learning algorithms can seed the AI with very limited data — we have deployed Contact Center automation for enterprise clients with as little as 500 lines of historical conversation.”

Ultimate.ai’s proprietary NLP achieves “state-of-the-art accuracy at 98.6%”, he claims.

It can also make use of what he dubs “semi-supervised learning” to further boost accuracy over time as agents use the tool.

“Finally, we leverage transfer learning to apply a single algorithmic model across all clients, scaling our learnings from client-to-client and constantly improving our solution,” he adds.

On the competitive front, it’s going up against the likes of IBM’s Watson AI. However Kainulainen argues that IBM’s manual tools — which he argues “require large onboarding projects and are limited in languages with no self-learning capabilities” — make that sort of manual approach to chatbot building “unsustainable in the long-term”.

He also contends that many rivals are saddled with “lengthy set-up and heavy maintenance requirements” which makes them “extortionately expensive”.

A closer competitor (in terms of approach) which he namechecks is TC Disrupt battlefield alum Digital Genius. But again they’ve got English language origins — so he flags that as a differentiating factor vs the proprietary NLP at the core of Ultimate.ai’s product (which he claims can handle any language).

“It is very difficult to scale out of English to other languages,” he argues. “It also uneconomical to rebuild your architecture to serve multi-language scenarios. Out of necessity, we have been language-agnostic since day one.”

“Our technology and team is tailored to the customer service problem; generic conversational AI tools cannot compete,” he adds. “Within this, we are a full package for enterprises. We provide a complete AI platform, from automation to augmentation, as well as omnichannel capabilities across Chat, Email and Social. Languages are also a key technical strength, enabling our clients to serve their customers wherever they may be.”

The multi-language architecture is not the only claimed differentiator, either.

Kainulainen points to the team’s mission as another key factor on that front, saying: “We want to transform how people work in customer service. It’s not about building a simple FAQ bot, it’s about deeply understanding how the division and the people work and building tools to empower them. For us, it’s not Superagent vs. Botman, it’s Superagent + Botman.”

So it’s not trying to suggest that AI should replace your entire customers service team but rather enhance your in house humans.

Asked what the AI can’t do well, he says this boils down to interactions that are transactional vs relational — with the former category meshing well with automation, but the latter (aka interactions that require emotional engagement and/or complex thought) definitely not something to attempt to automate away.

“Transactional cases are mechanical and AI is good at mechanical. The customer knows what they want (a specific query or action) and so can frame their request clearly. It’s a simple, in-and-out case. Full automation can be powerful here,” he says. “Relational cases are more frequent, more human and more complex. They can require empathy, persuasion and complex thought. Sometimes a customer doesn’t know what the problem is — “it’s just not working”.

“Other times are sales opportunities, which businesses definitely don’t want to automate away (AI isn’t great at persuasion). And some specific industries, e.g. emergency services, see the human response as so vital that they refuse automation entirely. In all of these situations, AI which augments people, rather than replaces, is most effective.

“We see work in customer service being transformed over the next decade. As automation of simple requests becomes the status-quo, businesses will increasingly differentiate through the quality of their human-touch. Customer service will become less labour intensive, higher skilled work. We try and imagine what tools will power this workforce of tomorrow and build them, today.”

On the ethics front, he says customers are always told when they are transferred to a human agent — though that agent will still be receiving AI support (i.e. in the form of suggested replies to help “bolster their speed and quality”) behind the scenes.

Ultimate.ai’s customers define cases they’d prefer an agent to handle — for instance where there may be a sales opportunity.

“In these cases, the AI may gather some pre-qualifying customer information to speed up the agent handle time. Human agents are also brought in for complex cases where the AI has had difficulty understanding the customer query, based on a set confidence threshold,” he adds.

Kainulainen says the seed funding will be used to enhance the scalability of the product, with investments going into its AI clustering system.

The team will also be targeting underserved language markets to chase scale — “focusing heavily on the Nordics and DACH [Germany, Austria, Switzerland]”.

“We are building out our teams across Berlin and Helsinki. We will be working closely with our partners – SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce and Genesys — to further this vision,” he adds. 

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Jasper Masemann, investment manager at Holtzbrinck Ventures, added: “The customer service industry is a huge market and one of the world’s largest employers. Ultimate.ai addresses the main industry challenges of inefficiency, quality control and high people turnover with latest advancements in deep learning and human machine hybrid models. The results and customer feedback are the best I have seen, which makes me very confident the team can become a forerunner in this space.”

Lucid Motors secures $1 billion from Saudi wealth fund to launch the Air

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is investing $1 billion into Lucid Motors, capital that will finance the commercial launch of the startup’s first electric vehicle.

The agreement comes just six weeks after Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private at $420 a share and had secured the proper funding to make the leap. Musk suggested that Saudi’s wealth fund, which already owns almost 5 percent of Tesla stock, would xyz.

Tesla’s board and Musk have since quashed those plans to go private.

The investment came at a crucial moment for Lucid Motors, which has struggled recently to raise the funds needed to produce its luxury EV, the Lucid Air. The funding will be used to complete engineering development and testing of the Lucid Air, construct its factory in Casa Grande, Arizona, begin the global rollout of its retail strategy starting in North America and enter production, the company said.

Lucid Motors was founded 10 years ago with a different name and mission. The company, called  Atieva at the time, was focused on developing electric car battery technology. It then shifted to producing electric cars and changed its name in 2016.

The company seemed to have momentum at the time. Lucid Motors had successfully raised money, unveiled the Air, announced plans to build a $700 million factory in Arizona, signed a deal with Samsung SDI to supply it with lithium-ion batteries and moved into spacious new digs. But building a factory is expensive, and the company fell silent for nearly a year as it sought funding to produce the Air.

It’s also a notable investment for the Saudi kingdom, which under its Vision 2030 plan is seeking to diversify its economy away from fossil fuels. In the past year, the Saudi Public Investment Fund has invested in renewable energy, established and developed recycling companies and energy efficiency services, the kingdom noted in a release.