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Madrona Venture Labs raises $11M to build companies from the ground up

Posted by on May 15, 2019 in alpha, Amazon, Artificial Intelligence, blake irving, eBay, economy, entrepreneurship, erik blachford, Facebook, Finance, GoDaddy, madrona venture group, Microsoft, money, Private Equity, Seattle, spencer rascoff, Startup company, TC, Trinity Ventures, Venture Capital, venture capital Firms, venture capital funds, Zillow | 0 comments

In regions where would-be entrepreneurs need a little more support and encouragement before they’ll quit their day job, the startup studio model is taking off.

In Seattle, Madrona Venture Labs (MVL), a studio founded within one the city’s oldest and most-celebrated venture capital firms, Madrona Venture Group, has raised $11.3 million. The investment brings the studio’s total funding to $20 million.

Traditional venture capital funds invite founders to pitch their business idea to a line-up of partners. Sometimes that’s a founder with an idea looking for seed capital, other times it’s a more mature company looking to scale. When it comes to startup studios, the partners themselves craft startup ideas internally, recruiting entrepreneurs to lead the projects, then building them from the ground up within their own safe, protective walls. After a project passes the studio’s litmus test, i.e. shows proof of traction, product-market fit and more, it’s spun out with funding from Madrona and other VCs within its large and growing investor network.

For aspiring entrepreneurs deterred by the risk factors inherent to building venture-backed startups, it’s a highly desirable route. In the Pacific Northwest, where MVL focuses its efforts, it’s a chance to lure Microsoft and Amazon employees into the world of entrepreneurship.

“We want to be an onboard for founders in our market,” MVL managing director Mike Fridgen, who previously led the eBay-acquired business Decide.com, tells TechCrunch. “In Seattle, everyone isn’t a co-founder or an angel investor. Not everyone has been at a startup. A lot of people coming here are coming to work at Amazon, Microsoft or one of the larger satellite offices like Facebook. We want to help them fast-track learning, fundraising and everything else that comes with launching a successful company.”

Fridgen, MVL managing director Ben Elowitz, who co-founded the online jewelry marketplace Blue Nile and chief technology officer Jay Bartot, the co-founder of Hulu-acquired Vhoto, lead Madrona’s studio effort.

The investment in MVL comes in part from its parent company, Madrona, and for the first time, outside investors have acquired stakes in the practice. Alpha Edison, West River Group, Founder’s Co-op partner Rudy Gadre, Zillow co-founder Spencer Rascoff, former GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving, Trinity Ventures venture partner Gus Tai, TCV venture partner Erik Blachford and others participated.

With $1.6 billion in assets under management, Madrona is known for investments in Seattle bigwigs like Smartsheet, Rover and Redfin. The firm, which recently closed on another $100 million for an acceleration fund that will expand its geographic reach beyond the Pacific Northwest, launched its startup studio in 2014. Since then, it’s spun-out seven companies with an aggregate valuation of $140 million.

“There are some 85 VCs that have $300 million-plus funds,” Fridgen said. “In Seattle, we have two of the most valuable companies in the world and we have just one [big fund], Madrona; it’s the center of gravity for Seattle technology innovation.”

Companies created within MVL include Spruce Up, an AI-powered personal shopping platform, and Domicile, a luxury apartment rental service geared toward business travelers. Domicile was co-founded by Ross Saario, who spent the three years ahead of launching the startup as a general manager at Amazon. The company recently raised a $5 million round, while Spruce Up, co-founded by serial founder Mia Lewin, closed a $3 million round in May.

Other spin-outs include MightyAI, which was valued at $71 million in 2017; Nordstrom-acquired MessageYes, Chatitive and Rep the Squad. The latter, a jersey rental business, was a failure, shutting down in 2018 after failing to land necessary investment, according to GeekWire.

MVL’s latest fundraise will be used to invest in operations. Though MVL does provide its spin-outs with some capital, between $100,000 to $200,000 Fridgen said, it takes a back seat when it comes time to raise outside capital and doesn’t serve as the lead investor in deals.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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The next frontier in real estate technology

Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in affordable housing, Airbnb, Column, homeshare, loopnet, property, Real Estate, Trinity Ventures, Trulia, WeWork, Zillow | 0 comments

From entertainment to transportation, technology has upended nearly every major industry — with one notable exception: real estate. Instead of disrupting the sector, the last generation of real estate technology companies primarily improved efficiencies of existing processes. Industry leaders Zillow/Trulia and LoopNet* helped us search for homes and commercial real estate better and faster, but they didn’t significantly change what we buy or lease or from whom or how.

The next generation of real estate technology companies is taking a more expansive approach, dismantling existing systems and reimagining entirely new ones that address our growing demand for affordability, community and flexibility.

The increasing need for affordability

Home ownership has long been integral to the American dream, but for many young Americans today it’s an unattainable dream. A third of millennials live at home, and as a cohort, they spend a greater share of their income on rent than previous generations did — about 45 percent during their first decade of work. This leaves little money left over for savings, much less for home ownership, the largest financial expenditure of most people’s lifetimes.

The increasing need for affordable housing is driving some creative tech-enabled solutions. One segment of startups is focused on making existing homes more affordable, especially in high-cost markets like New York and the Bay Area. Divvy helps consumers, many of them with low credit scores, rent-to-own homes, which are assessed for viability by a combination of contractors and machine learningLandedfunded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, helps educators afford homes in the communities in which they teach. Homeshare divides luxury apartments into multiple more-affordable units, and Bungalow takes a similar approach with houses. Both companies have built technology platforms to manage their tenant listings and to allocate tenant expenses and streamline payments.

Consumers aren’t just craving affordability, they’re also seeking company.

Another segment of startups is aiming to reduce the costs of building new homes, such as with modular, prefab housing to reduce construction costs. Katerra, which just raised $865 million, is aiming to create a seamless, one-stop shop for commercial and residential development, managing the entire building process from design and sourcing through the completion of construction. Taking a “full stack” approach to every step of the building process should enable them to find efficiencies and reduce costs.

If the economy weakens, the need for more affordable housing will only grow, making these startups not only recession-proof but even recession-strong. Collectively, they’re helping Americans right-size their dreams to something more broadly attainable.

In search of community

Consumers aren’t just craving affordability, they’re also seeking company. More than half of Americans feel lonely, and the youngest cohort in their late teens and early-to-mid-twenties are the loneliest of the bunch (followed closely by millennials). Millennials are the first generation to enter the workforce in the era of smartphones and laptops. While 24/7 connectivity enables us to work anywhere, anytime, it also creates expectations of working anywhere, anytime — and so many people do, bleeding the lines between work life and personal life. Longer work hours make community harder to build organically, so many millennials place value on employers and landlords who facilitate it for them.

Airbnb and WeWork were early to capitalize on the demand for community, with one changing how we travel and the other redefining the modern office space. Co-working companies like WeWork, as well more targeted providers like The Assembly*, The Wing and The Riveter, offer speaker series, classes and other free member events aimed at building connections. Airbnb, once focused only on lodging, has broadened its platform to include community-building shared experiences.

Shared living and hospitality startups are also investing in community to attract and retain customers. StarCity provides dorms for adults, Common and HubHaus rent homes intended to be shared by roommates and Ollie offers luxury micro apartments in a co-living environment. These companies are leveraging technology to foster in-person connections. For example, Common uses Slack channels to communicate with and connect members, and HubHaus uses roommate matching algorithms.

Within the hospitality sector, Selina offers a blended travel lodge, wellness and co-working platform geared toward creating community for travelers and remote workers, complete with high-tech beachside and jungle-side office spaces. Meanwhile, experience-driven lifestyle hotel company Life House* connects guests through onsite locally rooted food and beverage destinations and direct app-based social introductions to other travelers.

Modern life requires flexibility

Life can be unpredictable, especially for young people who tend to change jobs frequently. Short job tenures are especially common within the growing gig economy workforce. People who don’t know how long their jobs will last don’t want to be burdened with long-term lease commitments or furniture that’s nearly as expensive to move as it is to buy.

The next frontier in real estate technology is as boundless as it is exciting.

Companies like FeatherFernish and CasaOne rent furniture to people seeking flexibility in their living environments. Among consumers ready to buy their homes but looking for some extra help, Knock, created by Trulia founding team members and which recently raised a $400 million Series B, provides an end-to-end platform to enable home buyers to buy a new home before selling their old one. Also emphasizing flexibility, OpenDoorvalued at more than $2 billion, pioneered “instant offers” for homeowners looking to sell their homes quickly, leveraging algorithms to determine how much specific houses are worth.

It’s not just residents who seek flexible leases; many companies do as well, particularly those accommodating distributed employees or experiencing periods of uncertainty or rapid growth. To enable flexibility, several commercial real estate technology companies have developed platforms that balance pricing, capacity and demand.

Knotel, a “headquarters as a service” for companies with 100-300 employees, builds out and manages office spaces at lower risk and with more flexibility than is typically possible through commercial real estate leases, enabling tenants to quickly add or shrink office space as needed. WeWork allows members to pay only for the time periods when they come in to work. Taking flexibility to an even greater level, Breather lets workers rent rooms by the hour, day or month.

The next frontier in real estate technology is as boundless as it is exciting. A whole new generation of startups is designing innovative solutions from the ground up to address our growing demands for affordability, community and flexibility. In the process, they’re fundamentally reimagining how we live, work and play by transforming the modern workplace, leisure space and even our definition of home. We look forward to seeing — and experiencing — what lies ahead.

*Trinity Ventures portfolio company.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Appen acquires Figure Eight for up to $300M, bringing two data annotation companies together

Posted by on Mar 10, 2019 in Appen, Artificial Intelligence, Canvas Ventures, Chris Van Pelt, crowdflower, Figure Eight, Industry Ventures, Lukas Biewald, Salesforce Ventures, Startups, TC50, Trinity Ventures | 0 comments

Appen just announced that it’s acquiring Figure Eight in an all-cash deal that sees Appen paying $175 million upfront, with an additional payment of up to $125 million based on Figure Eight’s performance this year.

Both companies focus on using crowdsourced labor pools to annotate data, which in turn is used to train artificial intelligence and machine learning — for example, Figure Eight (formerly known as CrowdFlower and Dolores Labs) says its technology has been for everything from mapping to stock photography to scanning receipts for expense reports.

Appen, meanwhile, is a publicly-traded company headquartered in Sydney. CEO Mark Brayan described its technology — and its “crowd” of more than 1 million remote workers — as “highly complementary” to Figure Eight, which he praised for its data annotation and self-serve capabilities.

“We know that to compete and to be able to deliver even higher volumes, we need a richer set of technologies,” Brayan said. “That’s where Figure Eight comes in. They are, in our view, the leader in the market of the platform providers.”

As for what this means for the Figure Eight team, he said, “Everybody stays in place,” and that Appen plans to continue investing in the product.

Brayan also noted that Appen previously acquired another data annotation company called Leapforce in 2017, a move that he said provided the company with greater scale.

“The Figure Eight acquisition is the next step of our evolution,” he said. “Step one was to get bigger, step two is to become much more tech forward, which is what we get with Figure Eight.”

San Francisco-based Figure Eight has raised a total of $58 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, from investors including Trinity Ventures, Industry Ventures, Canvas Ventures and Salesforce Ventures. As CrowdFlower, it launched on-stage at the TechCrunch50 conference nearly a decade ago.

“I’m extremely proud of the team,” said Figure Eight co-founder Lukas Biewald in a statement. “This is a genuine validation of everything we’ve achieved and a great platform for our teams to combine and continue to do amazing things in AI.”

Biewald (who’s a college from of mine), along with his co-founder Chris Van Pelt, has moved on to a new startup called Weights and Biases, but he remains involved in Figure Eight as chairman. You can watch their TC50 presentation here.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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SynapseFI raises $17M to develop its fintech and banking platform

Posted by on Sep 5, 2018 in Banking, chase, core innovation capital, Finance, funding, Fundings & Exits, San Francisco, TC, Trinity Ventures | 0 comments

SynapseFI, a startup that helps banks and fintech companies work together to develop technology, has announced that it raised a $17 million Series A funding round.

The funding actually closed at the back end of last year, but CEO Sankaet Pathak said the company has been so busy developing new products, hiring and more than that it is only getting around to disclosing the deal now. The investment was led by Trinity Ventures and Core Innovation Capital, with participation from other unnamed backers.

The San Francisco-based startup has sat under the radar for a while now despite starting up in 2014. Its core product is a platform that helps banks and developers work together. That involves developer-facing APIs that allow companies to connect with banks to offer services, and also bank-facing APIs that allow banks to automate and extend back-end operations.

Pathak describes the vision as making it possible for anyone around the world to get access to high-quality financial products. The first focus is to make financial products “like Lego bricks” to enable banks to add new products and services easily. As it stands today, development is a painful process that requires specific infrastructure development, but SynapseFI aims to standardize a lot of the processes and platform to make things much simpler.

The idea for the business came when Pathak, who moved to the U.S. from India in 2010, grew frustrated at being unable to get a bank account or loan because he had no social security history. He left the University of Memphis, where he had studied computer engineering and sciences, and founded the startup in April 2014 alongside his friend Bryan Keltner.

Initially, the business focused on payments, but it gradually tilted to become a technology enabler for the financial industry.

Today, SynapseFI has over 60 staff and it works with a roster of over 100 financial industry clients. Its products include the basics like payment, deposit, lending and investment services, but it has also ventured into crypto with services that include a white-label wallet.

To date, it claims to have processed over $10 billion in transactions and helped bank more than 1.5 million people through its technology.

The SynapseFi team

“There are three core things we want to fix in banking,” Pathak told TechCrunch in an interview. “The back office is still mostly manual today and we want to automate that. There’s a need for vertical integration… we want any large or small financial company to be able to come to us and operate at the same scale as the likes of Wells and Chase. We also want to automate financial advice using behavior science.”

Pathak added that the startup also harbors an ambition to expand overseas. That’s likely to mean Europe first — potentially a market like the UK or Germany — but it’ll require fairly intensive localization as the SynapseFI platform is customized to accommodate U.S. APIs and data pipes, none of which will work outside of the country.

An expansion would be likely to happen around the time that the company looks to raise its Series B, although Pathak stressed that he is also focused on building a sustainable business and not simply relying on venture capital money. Indeed, he said that the company is likely to reach breakeven by the end of the year.

“I still think it’s a healthy business practice,” Pathak said.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Weights & Biases raises $5M to build development tools for machine learning

Posted by on May 31, 2018 in Artificial Intelligence, funding, Startups, TC, Trinity Ventures, Weights and Biases | 0 comments

Machine learning is one of those buzzwords that nearly every tech company likes to throw around nowadays — but according to Lukas Biewald, it represents a genuinely new approach to programming.

“Software has eaten a lot of the world, and machine learning is eating software,” Biewald said.

In his view, there are “fundamental” differences between the two approaches: “One important difference is if all you have is the code you used to train the program, you don’t really know what happened … If I had all the code that was used to train a self-driving car algorithm but I don’t have the data, I don’t know what went down.”

Along with Chris Van Pelt, Biewald previously founded CrowdFlower (now known as Figure Eight), which launched nearly a decade ago at the TechCrunch 50 conference, and which has created tools for training artificial intelligence.

Biewald (whom I’ve known since college) and Van Pelt, plus former Google engineer Shawn Lewis, have now started a new company called Weights & Biases to build new tools for machine learning developers. They’ve also raised $5 million in Series A funding from Trinity Ventures and Bloomberg Beta.

“Artificial Intelligence has so much potential, but few companies are implementing it yet because the development process is too complicated for all but a small number of highly trained engineers,” said Trinity’s Dan Scholnick, who’s joining the startup’s board of directors. (Scholnick previously backed CrowdFlower.) “W&B aims to dramatically streamline the machine learning software development process so that AI benefits can be unlocked across industries and no longer restricted to the few firms able to hire extremely skilled and extraordinarily expensive AI developers today.”

weights and biases screenshot

The eventual goal is to create a whole suite of development tools, but Weights & Biases’ first product records and visualizes the process of training a machine learning algorithm. Biewald explained that this makes it possible for developers to go back and see what they were doing, say, a month ago and to share that information with teammates. And it’s already being used by the nonprofit research company OpenAI.

Biewald added that when he talked to his friends in the field about their biggest problems, this was the first thing that came up. That’s how he hopes to approach future products as well — working with developers to figure out what they really need.

“I don’t want to help with the hype,” he said. “I want to help with the real problems that really get in the way … to make this stuff actually work.”

Biewald also offered more details about his vision for the company in a blog post:

You can’t paint well with a crappy paintbrush, you can’t write code well in a crappy IDE, and you can’t build and deploy great deep learning models with the tools we have now. I can’t think of any more important goal than changing that.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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