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Facebook makes its first browser API contribution

Facebook today announced that it has made its first major API contribution to Google’s Chrome browser. Together with Google, Facebook’s team created an API proposal to contribute code to the browser, which is a first for the company. The code, like so much of Facebook’s work on web tools and standards, focuses on making the user experience a bit smoother and faster. In this case, that means shortening the time between a click or keystroke and the browser reacting to that.

The first trial for this new system will launch with Chrome 74.

Typically, a browser’s JavaScript engine handles how code is executed and when it will halt for a moment to see if there are any pending input events to which it needs to react. Because even modern JavaScript engines that run on multi-core machines are still essentially single-threaded, the engine can only really do one thing at a time, so the trick is to figure out how to best combine code execution with checking for input events.

“Like many other sites, we deal with this issue by breaking the JavaScript up into smaller blocks. While the page is loading, we run a bit of JavaScript, and then we yield and pass control back to the browser,” the Facebook team explains in today’s announcement. “The browser can then check its input event queue and see whether there is anything it needs to tell the page about. Then the browser can go back to running the JavaScript blocks as they get added.”

Every time the browser goes through that cycle, though, and checks for new events, processes them, a bit of extra time passes. You do this too many times and loading the page slows down. But if you only check for inputs at slower intervals, the user experience degrades as the browser takes longer to react.

To fix this, Facebook’s engineers created the isInputPending API, which eliminates this trade-off. The API, which Facebook also brought to the W3C Web Performance Working Group, allows developers to check whether there are any inputs pending while their code is executing.

With this, the code simply checks if there’s something to react to, without having to fully yield control back to the browser and then passing it back to the JavaScript engine.

For now this is just a trial — and because developers must integrate this into their code, it’s not something that will automatically speed up your browser once Chrome 74 launches. If the trial is successful, though, chances are developers will make use of it (and Facebook surely will do so itself) and that other browser vendors will integrate into through their own engines, too.

“The process of bringing isInputPending to Chrome represents a new method of developing web standards at Facebook,” the team says. “We hope to continue driving new APIs and to ramp up our contributions to open source web browsers. Down the road, we could potentially build this API directly into React’s concurrent mode so developers would get the API benefits out of the box. In addition, isInputPending is now part of a larger effort to build scheduling primitives into the web.”

Beyond Meat files for a public offering

Beyond Meat, the meat replacement company whose packages of Beyond Burgers line grocery store aisles across America, has filed for an initial public offering.

The company is looking to raise roughly $200 million in the stock sale for its portfolio of burger, chicken and sausage replacements, selling 8.75 million shares of common stock at an upper limit of $21 per share that would value Beyond Meat at more than $1 billion.

The Los Angeles-based company’s public offering should be a nice windfall for the Chicago-based investors DNS Capital, an investment firm managing the private wealth of the Pritzker family, and Cleveland Avenue, founded by former McDonald’s executive Don Thompson; as well as the venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins and Obvious Ventures.

Another winner from the Beyond Meat public offering is the corporate investment arm of Tyson Foods . The meat processor and marketer invested in Beyond Meat back in 2016.

All told, Beyond Meat has raised $122 million from investors, including Obvious Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Cleveland Avenue, DNS Capital, Tyson Ventures, Bill Gates, S2G Ventures and a whole host of other firms, according to Crunchbase.

While Beyond Meat has increased its revenues steadily — from $16.2 million when it began selling its wares in 2016 to $87.9 million in 2018 — the company is still a loss-generating machine. Its operations were in the red to the tune of $29.9 million in 2018, down from $30.4 million a year earlier.

With the public offering, Beyond Meat becomes the first venture-backed meat replacement company to list its shares, but there are other startups waiting to follow suit. Impossible Burger is another well-financed startup making burger alternatives, as is the current king of animal-free condiments, Just, which is looking at lab-grown meat on its product roadmap.

Supporting all of this investment activity is the potential to carve out a huge chunk of the $270 billion consumers spent on meat in the U.S. in 2017 alone. Globally, consumers bought $1.4 trillion of meat, according to data from Fitch Solutions Macro Research cited by the company.

Meanwhile, consumption of plant-based meat replacements in the U.S. is growing at a steady clip. In the first half of 2018, Americans bought $670 million of meat replacement products, according to a Nielsen study commissioned by the Plant Based Food Association.

Confirmed: Pax Labs raises $420 million at a valuation of $1.7 billion

Pax Labs, the popular vape maker, has today confirmed the close of a $420 million equity round, including from existing investors Tiger Global Management and Tao Capital Partners, and new investors including Prescott General Partners.

A Pax Labs spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch that the post-money valuation for Pax Labs is $1.7 billion.

The Information first reported the round, but we’ve confirmed the specific details, including funding amount and valuation.

Pax Labs launched in 2007 with the hopes of creating a cannabis vaporizer. Since then, the company has created vaporizers for just about every corner of the space, including the PAX Era for concentrates and the PAX 3 for flower.

Here’s what CEO Bharat Vasan said in a prepared statement:

PAX is investing heavily in growing its brand as well as developing innovative new products to scale and capture an enormous opportunity. This financing round allows us to invest in new products and new markets, including international growth in markets like Canada and exploring opportunities in hemp-based CBD extracts. We aspire to be the gold standard for safety and good stewards of a product that enhances many people’s lives. We are hiring and investing heavily in our people, who power PAX’s mission of establishing cannabis as a force for good.

It’s worth noting that Juul, the popular e-cigarette brand, and Pax Labs used to live under the same corporate umbrella before Pax Labs spun out of Juul in 2017.

Looking forward, Pax has plans to give users more insight into taking the guesswork out of cannabis. As cannabis becomes legal in more areas, the demographic seeking products in the space continues to grow. Pax wants to help, and believes it can do so through a combination of hardware and software, though Vasan wasn’t willing to go into details on the company’s forthcoming products and features.

“People know about different kinds of alcohol,” said Vasan. “They may know that they’re a beer person or a wine person. But none of that exists within cannabis. They see names like ‘Lemon Haze’ and ‘Cherry Fizz’ and they don’t know what that is. These are all really awesome names for a band but not great to let you know what you’re consuming. We want to provide more clarity around what that means.”

As I said, Vasan was not keen on offering more, but this sounds like more of a data play than a combo software/hardware play, which leads me to believe that we may see an acquisition in Pax Labs’ future. (To be clear, this fictional acquisition is based strictly on my conjecture and not based on any evidence at all.)

“Our biggest challenge is safe consumer access,” said Vasan. “Regulation is a good thing in this space. It makes standards higher and products more transparent.”

From lab-grown meat to fermented fungus, here’s what corporate food VCs are serving up

In a foodie’s ideal world, we’d all eat healthy, minimally processed cuisine sourced from artisanal farmers, bakers and chefs.

In the real world, however, most of us derive the lion’s share of calories from edibles supplied by a handful of giant food conglomerates. As such, the ingredients and processing techniques they favor have an outsized impact on our daily diets.

With this in mind, Crunchbase News decided to take a look at corporate food VCs and the startups they are backing to see what their dealmaking might say about our snacking future. We put together a list of venture funds operated by some of the larger food and beverage producers, covering literally everything from soup to nuts (plus lunch meat and soda, too!).

Like their corporate backers, startups funded by “Big Food” are a diverse bunch. Recent funding recipients are pursuing endeavors ranging from alternative protein to biospectral imaging to fermented fungus. But if one were to pinpoint an overarching trend, it might be a shift away from cost savings to consumer-friendliness.

“You think of food-tech and ag-tech 1.0, these were technologies that were primarily beneficial to the producers,” said Rob LeClerc, founding partner at AgFunder, an agrifood investor network. “This new generation of companies are really more focused on what does the consumer want.”

And what does the consumer want? This particular consumer would currently like a zero calorie hot fudge sundae. More broadly, however, the general trends LeClerc sees call for food that is healthier, tastier, nutrient-dense, satiating, ethically sourced and less environmentally impactful.

Below, we look at some of the trends in more detail, including funded companies, active investors and the up-and-coming edibles.

The new, new protein

Mass-market foods may get better but also weirder. This is particularly true for one of the more consistently hot areas of food-tech investment: alternative protein.

Demand for protein-rich foods, combined with ethical concerns about consuming animal products, has, for a number of years, led investors to startups offering meaty tasting tidbits sourced from the plant world.

But lately, corporate food giants have been looking farther beyond soy and peas. Lab-grown meat, once an oddball endeavor good for headlines about $1,000 meatballs, has been attracting serious cash. Since last year, at least two companies in the space have closed rounds backed by Tyson Ventures, the VC arm of the largest U.S. meat producer. They include pricey meatball maker Memphis Meats (actually based in California), which raised $20 million, and Israel-based Future Meat Technologies, a biotech startup working on animal-free meat, which secured $2 million.

Much of the early enthusiasm for new products stems from disillusionment with the existing ingredients we overeat.

If you cringe at the notion of lab-grown cell meat, then there’s always the option of getting your protein through microbes in volcanic springs. That’s the general aim of Sustainable Bioproducts, a startup that raised $33 million in Series A funding from backers including ADM and Danone Manifesto Ventures. The Chicago company’s technology for making edible protein emerged out of research into extremophile organisms in Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic springs.

Meanwhile, if you hanker for real dairy milk but don’t want to trouble cows, another startup, Perfect Day, is working on a solution. Per the company website: “Instead of having cows do all the work, we use microflora and age-old fermentation techniques to make the very same dairy protein that cows make.” Toward that end, the Berkeley company closed a $35 million Series B in February, with backing from ADM.

Fermentation

Perfect Day isn’t the only fermentation play raising major funding.

Corporate food-tech investors have long been interested in the processing technologies that turn an obscure microbe or under-appreciated crop into a high-demand ingredient. And lately, LeClerc said, they’ve been particularly keen on startups finding new ways to apply the age-old technology known as fermentation.

Most of us know fermentation as the process that turns a yucky mix of grain, yeast and water into the popular beverage known as beer. More broadly, however, fermentation is a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes. That is, take a substance, add something it reacts with and voilà, you have a new substance.

Several of the most heavily funded, buzz-generating companies in the food space are applying fermentation, LeClerc said. Besides Perfect Day, examples he points to include the unicorn Ginkgo BioworksGeltor (another alt-protein startup) and mushroom-focused MycoTechnology.

Colorado-based MycoTechnology has been a particularly attractive investor target of late. The company has raised $83 million from a mix of corporate and traditional VCs, including a $30 million Series C in January that included Tyson and Kellogg’s venture arm, Eighteen94 Capital . Founded six years ago, the company is pursuing a range of applications for its fermented fungi, including flavor enhancers, protein supplements and preservatives.

Supply chain

Besides adding strange new ingredients to our grocery shelves, corporate food-tech investors are also putting money into technologies and platforms aimed at boosting the security and efficiency of existing supply chains.

Just like new foods, much of the food safety tech sounds odd, too. Silicon Valley-based ImpactVision, a seed-funded startup backed by Campbell Soup VC arm Acre Venture Partners, wants to employ hyper-spectral imaging to perceive information about contamination, food quality and ripeness.

Boston-based Spoiler Alert, another Acre portfolio company, develops software and analytics for food companies to manage unsold inventory. And Pensa Systems, which uses AI-powered autonomous drones to track in-store inventory, raised a Series A round this year with backing from the venture arm of Anheuser-Busch InBev.

Is weirder better?

We highlighted a few trends in corporate food-tech investment, but there are others that merit attention, as well. Probiotics plays, including the maker of the GoodBelly drink line, are generating investor interest. New ingredients other than proteins are also attracting capital, such as UCAN, a startup developing energy snacks based on a novel, slow-digesting carbohydrate. And the list goes on.

Much of the early enthusiasm for new products stems from disillusionment with the existing ingredients we overeat. But LeClerc noted that new products aren’t always better in the long run — they just might seem so at first.

“The question in the back of our head is: Are we ever creating margarine 2.0,” he said. “Just because it’s a plant product doesn’t mean it’s actually better for you.”

Acquisitions, more than IPOs, will create Africa’s early startup successes

Africa has made its global IPO debut. Pan-African e-commerce company Jumia—a $1 billion-valued company—began trading live on the NYSE last week.

The stock offering made Jumia the first upstart operating in Africa to list on a major global exchange.

This raises expectations for unicorns and IPOs to create the continent’s first wave of startup moguls. But unlike other markets, big public listings and nine-figure valuations could remain rare in Africa.

The rise of venture arms and startup acquisitions will factor more prominently than IPOs in creating Africa’s early startup successes.

I’ll break down why. First, a quick briefer.

Primer on African tech

Not everyone may be aware, but yes, Africa has a booming tech scene. When measured by monetary values, it’s minuscule by Shenzen or Silicon Valley standards.