Welcome to The Interchange! If you received this in your inbox, thank you for signing up and your vote of confidence. If you’re reading this as a post on our site, sign up here so you can receive it directly in the future. Every week, I’ll take a look at the hottest fintech news of the previous week. This will include everything from funding rounds to trends to an analysis of a particular space to hot takes on a particular company or phenomenon. There’s a lot of fintech news out there and it’s my job to stay on top of it — and make sense of it — so you can stay in the know. — Mary Ann
Hello, and welcome back. We finally got our power restored after the ice storm and I’m feeling better after coming down with a cold — but since I’m still not operating at full capacity, this newsletter will be a bit abbreviated.
Rebrands are not uncommon in the startup world, and the fintech space is no exception. They are particularly more prevalent when companies pivot to adapt to external circumstances. Last week, TripActions announced it was rebranding and is now called Navan.
I, for one, wasn’t at all surprised by the news since TripActions pivoted from being a travel expense management company to a corporate card and expense management for enterprises more generally soon after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. In 2021, CEO and co-founder Ariel Cohen told me that its revenue didn’t just drop — it bottomed out . . . to zero. That’s when execs decided to focus its efforts on its then-new Liquid offering, which appears to have worked out pretty well for the company. In October, amid its continued growth, the company raised $154 million in equity at a post-money valuation of $9.2 billion, up from its prior valuation of $7.5 billion, as well as a $150 million structured financing deal from Coatue. Then in December, it secured $400 million in credit facilities from Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank (SVB).
Its rebrand is more than just a name change, apparently. The company said it has now unified its travel, corporate and expense offerings into “a single super application.” On top of that, Navan — a combination of navigate and avant (or forward) — claims to be the first travel company to integrate OpenAI and ChatGPT APIs across its infrastructure and product set.
The company says it is currently using the generative AI technology to write, test, and fix code with the aim of increasing its operational efficiency and reducing overhead. So now, through Ava — Navan’s virtual assistant — travel managers are able to personalize recommendations and increase traveler engagement, execs claim. They say also that admins can use the tool as a personal assistant to perform tasks such as performing personalized data analysis, providing granular carbon emission details or ordering corporate cards for their company. Meanwhile, travelers can do things like perform a travel search, solve customer support issues and even recommend an Indian restaurant near their hotel in London, for example.
A company spokesperson told me via email: “Program admins will be able to ask Ava for reporting across the travel and spend programs, whether that is via text, graph, PDF, etc. We also use AI to do everything from the elimination of expense reporting to automate itemization — and in the case of hotel folios, we instantly fetch it from the hotel after a stay, categorize line items, compare that against company policy, and submit for the user, so there’s no need for them [to] move pennies around in order to balance out a folio — a process that’s pretty painful in my experience.”
Personally, we’ve been wondering at TC when generative AI was going to impact the fintech space, so I’m intrigued by this move on TripAction’s — I mean Navan’s — part.
But I should point out Navan wasn’t the only company in the financial services space that announced it was incorporating AI into its products.
Last week, TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez reported that Microsoft and American Express announced they were teaming up to put AI to work “to aid with the frustrating and laborious task of filing and auditing corporate expense reports.” She wrote: “The companies agreed to expand their decades-long partnership to build solutions that leverage Microsoft Cloud and AI technologies, starting with expense report management. According to Amex, the initial solution will leverage machine learning and AI to automate expense reporting and approvals.” Notably, though, Amex says the AI is something it built in-house — it’s not leveraging Microsoft’s partnership with OpenAI but is using Microsoft Cloud. You can read more about that deal here.
Fascinating! I expect we’ll only be hearing more about AI being incorporated in the world of financial services.
Last week, Affirm announced that it was reducing its staff by 19% and shutting down its crypto unit. It also missed analysts’ estimates on its revenue and earnings. All this news led to a sharp drop in its stock price. It’s further evidence that buy now, pay later as a space is struggling. I plan to get into that more next week, so stay tuned.
Gusto also slashed jobs — laying off 126 people last week. Last May, TechCrunch had reported that the HR technology unicorn, which was worth nearly $10 billion at that time, raised an extension to its 2021-era Series E funding round. That funding event included $175 million in primary capital, a tranche of secondary shares and a tender offer.
Ironically, TC’s Natasha Mascarenhas explains, late last month, Gusto’s editor-in-chief wrote about the topic of layoffs — and the silver lining ahead for small businesses looking to scoop up talent.
“Call me cynical, but in the end, a big business will always choose itself over scores of its employees. It’s just the nature of the beast. Small businesses need to use this fact to their advantage.”
TechCrunch reached out to Gusto for comment and was told that the cuts represented about 5% of the workforce. A spokesperson also told me: “All employees were notified by email. Impacted employees also received a text pointing them to the email.” One employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said the move came as a surprise since the company claims that it is in “stable financial condition.” The same employee cited a toxic work culture, a sentiment that was echoed by some users of Blind.
According to Axios: “Robinhood announced it plans to buy back shares from Sam Bankman-Fried’s Emergent Fidelity Technologies. That particular Robinhood stake is currently in legal hell after FTX’s implosion. Robinhood’s board has authorized the purchase of “most or all” of the 55 million shares Emergent Fidelity Technologies acquired last year, it said in its earnings report Wednesday. Emergent Fidelity Technologies was formed to buy a 7.6% in Robinhood in early 2022. Now however, the stake is being disputed by several players.” Ouch. I’m sure Robinhood didn’t anticipate this when giving up those shares.
Pie Insurance, which provides workers’ compensation insurance to small businesses, announced that it has completed its transition to a “rated, full-stack carrier.” Pie will begin issuing its own insurance policies later this year following the recent acquisition of a nationally licensed insurance company (previously the American Insurance Company), now renamed the Pie Insurance Company. We last covered Pie in September when it raised a $315 million Series D. Pie also expanded into commercial auto insurance as the MGA for Ford Motor Credit Company through the launch of Ford Pro Insure.
From Manish Singh: “Fintech Kissht and PayU’s LazyPay are among the apps that India’s IT Ministry has blocked in the ongoing crackdown as New Delhi moves to curb the misuse of consumers’ data and protect the nation’s integrity.” More here.
PayPal’s stock is up once again. The company announced during its fourth-quarter earnings announcement that longtime CEO Dan Schulman plans to retire at the end of the year. But its earnings topped analysts’ estimates. Last week, we wrote about the company’s plans to lay off 2,000 employees.
In July 2022, Brazilian fintech alt.bank launched novücard, a credit card in Brazil that has a “dynamic” credit limit, with the ability to see the limit adjusted upward and downward automatically based on usage and payment timeliness. A company spokesperson told me that since that launch, novücard has grown to 150,000 new clients, “making it the fastest growing credit card in Brazil.” She added: “As many as 3,000 new customers per day are obtaining a new novücard. The company expects this figure will grow, boosted primarily by word of mouth — and that the number of customers will increase to 2 million by the end of 2023.” Founded by American Brad Liebmann, fintech alt.bank has 130 employees based primarily in São Paulo and São Carlos. The company raised $5.5 million in seed funding in May of 2021.
Fundings and M&A
That’s it for this week. Thanks once again for hanging in there with me, and I hope to be back at you at full speed next week. Enjoy the rest of your weekend! xoxo, Mary Ann
Tesla more than tripled its Austin gigafactory workforce in 2022
Tesla’s 2,500-acre manufacturing hub in Austin, Texas tripled its workforce last year, according to the company’s annual compliance report filed with county officials. Bloomberg first reported on the news.
The report filed with Travis County’s Economic Development Program shows that Tesla increased its Austin workforce from just 3,523 contingent and permanent employees in 2021 to 12,277 by the end of 2022. Bloomberg reports that just over half of Tesla’s workers reside in the county, with the average full-time employee earning a salary of at least $47,147. Outside of Tesla’s factory, the average salary of an Austin worker is $68,060, according to data from ZipRecruiter.
TechCrunch was unable to acquire a copy of the report, so it’s not clear if those workers are all full-time. If they are, Tesla has hired a far cry more full-time employees than it is contracted to do. According to the agreement between Tesla and Travis County, the company is obligated to create 5,001 new full-time jobs over the next four years.
The contract also states that Tesla must invest about $1.1 billion in the county over the next five years. Tesla’s compliance report shows that the automaker last year invested $5.81 billion in Gigafactory Texas, which officially launched a year ago at a “Cyber Rodeo” event. In January, Tesla notified regulators that it plans to invest another $770 million into an expansion of the factory to include a battery cell testing site and cathode and drive unit manufacturing site. With that investment will come more jobs.
Tesla’s choice to move its headquarters to Texas and build a gigafactory there has helped the state lead the nation in job growth. The automaker builds its Model Y crossover there and plans to build its Cybertruck in Texas, as well. Giga Texas will also be a model for sustainable manufacturing, CEO Elon Musk has said. Last year, Tesla completed the first phase of what will become “the largest rooftop solar installation in the world,” according to the report, per Bloomberg. Tesla has begun on the second phase of installation, but already there are reports of being able to see the rooftop from space. The goal is to generate 27 megawatts of power.
Musk has also promised to turn the site into an “ecological paradise,” complete with a boardwalk and a hiking/biking trail that will open to the public. There haven’t been many updates on that front, and locals have been concerned that the site is actually more of an environmental nightmare that has led to noise and water pollution. The site, located at the intersection of State Highway 130 and Harold Green Road, east of Austin, is along the Colorado River and could create a climate catastrophe if the river overflows.
The site of Tesla’s gigafactory has also historically been the home of low-income households and has a large population of Spanish-speaking residents. It’s not clear if the jobs at the factory reflect the demographic population of the community in which it resides.
Launch startup Stoke Space rolls out software tool for complex hardware development
Stoke Space, a company that’s developing a fully reusable rocket, has unveiled a new tool to let hardware companies track the design, testing and integration of parts. The new tool, Fusion, is targeting an unsexy but essential aspect of the hardware workflow.
It’s a solution born out of “ubiquitous pain in the industry,” Stoke CEO Andy Lapsa said in a recent interview. The current parts tracking status quo is marked by cumbersome, balkanized solutions built on piles of paperwork and spreadsheets. Many of the existing tools are not optimized “for boots on the ground,” but for finance or procurement teams, or even the C-suite, Lapsa explained.
In contrast, Fusion is designed to optimize simple inventory transactions and parts organization, and it will continue to track parts through their lifespan: as they are built into larger assemblies and go through testing. In an extreme example, such as hardware failures, Fusion will help teams connect anomalous data to the exact serial numbers of the parts involved.
“If you think about aerospace in general, there’s a need and a desire to be able to understand the part pedigree of every single part number and serial number that’s in an assembly,” Lapsa said. “So not only do you understand the configuration, you understand the history of all of those parts dating back to forever.”
While Lapsa clarified that Fusion is the result of an organic in-house need for better parts management – designing a fully reusable rocket is complicated, after all – turning it into a sell-able product was a decision that the Stoke team made early on. It’s a notable example of a rocket startup generating pathways for revenue while their vehicle is still under development.
Fusion offers particular relevance to startups. Many existing tools are designed for production runs – not the fast-moving research and development environment that many hardware startups find themselves, Lapsa added. In these environments, speed and accuracy are paramount.
Brent Bradbury, Stoke’s head of software, echoed these comments.
“The parts are changing, the people are changing, the processes are changing,” he said. “This lets us capture all that as it happens without a whole lot of extra work.”
Amid a boom in AI accelerators, a UC Berkeley-focused outfit, House Fund, swings open its doors
Companies at the forefront of AI would naturally like to stay at the forefront, so it’s no surprise they want to stay close to smaller startups that are putting some of their newest advancements to work.
Last month, for example, Neo, a startup accelerator founded by Silicon Valley investor Ali Partovi, announced that OpenAI and Microsoft have offered to provide free software and advice to companies in a new track focused on artificial intelligence.
Now, another Bay Area outfit — House Fund, which invests in startups with ties to UC Berkeley — says it is launching an AI accelerator and that, similarly, OpenAI, Microsoft, Databricks, and Google’s Gradient Ventures are offering participating startups free and early access to tech from their companies, along with mentorship from top AI founders and executives at these companies.
We talked with House Fund founder Jeremy Fiance over the weekend to get a bit more color about the program, which will replace a broader-based accelerator program House Fund has run and whose alums include an additive manufacturing software company, Dyndrite, and the managed app development platform Chowbotics, whose most recent round in January brought the company’s total funding to more than $60 million.
For founders interested in learning more, the new AI accelerator program runs for two months, kicking off in early July and ending in early September. Six or so companies will be accepted, with the early application deadline coming up next week on April 13th. (The final application deadline is on June 1.) As for the time commitment involved across those two months, every startup could have a different experience, says Fiance. “We’re there when you need us, and we’re good at staying out of the way.”
There will be the requisite kickoff retreat to spark the program and founders to get to know one another. Candidates who are accepted will also have access to some of UC Berkeley’s renowned AI professors, including Michael Jordan, Ion Stoica, and Trevor Darrell. And they can opt into dinners and events in collaboration with these various constituents.
As for some of the financial dynamics, every startup that goes through the program will receive a $1 million investment on a $10 million post-money SAFE note. Importantly, too, as with the House Fund’s venture dollars, its AI accelerator is seeking startups that have at least one Berkeley-affiliated founder on the co-founding team. That includes alumni, faculty, PhDs, postdocs, staff, students, dropouts, and other affiliates.
There is no demo day. Instead, says Fiance, founders will receive “directed, personal introductions” to the VCs who best fit with their startups.
Given the buzz over AI, the new program could supercharge House Fund, the venture organization, which is already growing fast. Fiance launched it in 2016 with just $6 million and it now manages $300 million in assets, including on behalf of Berkeley Endowment Management Company and the University of California.
At the same time, the competition out there is fierce and growing more so by the day.
Though OpenAI has offered to partner with House Fund, for example, the San Francisco-based company announced its own accelerator back in November. Called Converge, the cohort was to be made up of 10 or so founders who received $1 million each and admission to five weeks of office hours, workshops and other events that ended and that received their funding from the OpenAI Startup Fund.
Y Combinator, the biggest accelerator in the world, is also oozing with AI startups right now, all of them part of a winter class that will be talking directly with investors this week via demo days that are taking place tomorrow, April 5th, and on Thursday.
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