Welcome to Startups Weekly, a fresh human-first take on this week’s startup news and trends. To get this in your inbox, subscribe here.
Tech innovation is a cycle, especially in the main character-driven world of early-stage venture capital and copycat nature of startups.
The latest proof? Y Combinator this week announced Launch YC, a platform where people can sort accelerator startups by industry, batch and launch date to discover new products. The famed accelerator, which has seeded the likes of Instacart, Coinbase, OpenSea and Dropbox, invites users to vote for newly launched startups “to help them climb up the leaderboard, try out product demos and learn about the founding team,” it said in a blog post.
If it sounds familiar, it’s because — in my perspective — Y Combinator is taking a not-so-subtle swipe at Product Hunt, a nearly decade-old platform that is synonymous with new startup launches and feature announcements.
Y Combinator doesn’t necessarily agree with this characterization: The accelerator’s head of communications, Lindsay Amos, told me over email that “we encourage YC founders to launch on many platforms — from the YC Directory to Product Hunt to Hacker News to Launch YC — in order to reach customers, investors and candidates.”
The overlap isn’t isolated. As Y Combinator makes a Product Hunt, Product Hunt is making an Andreessen Horowitz. Meanwhile, a16z is making its own Y Combinator. Not to mention Product Hunt has investment capital from a16z and formerly went through the Y Combinator accelerator.
The strategy is more than a tongue twister, it’s a signal on what institutions think is important to offer these days (and why they’re starting to borrow more than sugar, or deal flow, from their neighbors).
For my full take, read my TechCrunch+ column, “YC makes a Product Hunt, Product Hunt makes an a16z, a16z makes a YC.”
In the rest of this newsletter, we’ll talk about Coalition, Backstage Capital and Africa’s temperature-fluctuating summer. As always, you can support me by forwarding this newsletter to a friend or following me on Twitter or subscribing to my blog.
Deal of the week
Coalition! Built by a quartet of women operators in venture, Coalition is a fund meets network that is trying to get more diverse decision-makers onto cap tables. The two-pronged approach of fund and network helps Coalition cover multiple fronts: Founders can turn to the firm for capital or the network for advice at no further dilution. Aspiring investors and advisers can turn to the firm to begin building out their portfolio, and LPs can put money into an operation that is committed to broadening diversity on cap tables, known to have economic benefits.
Here’s why it’s important: Coalition co-founder Ashley Mayer, the former VP of communications for Glossier, explained a little about the building philosophy behind the new company.
Mayer explained that she and her three co-founders saw the value of taking a “portfolio approach” to careers, basically going deep on their respective operator roles while also angel investing and eventually scout investing. Three of them previously worked in venture but left it because they missed the experience of operating. Now, they’re trying to scale a way for people to keep their day jobs and build beyond it. Coalition co-founder and Cityblock Health founder Toyin Ajayi said that “as one of few women of color leading a venture-backed company, I feel a deep obligation to hold the door open for others.”
When do layoffs matter? Trick question — always
This week on Equity, we spoke about Backstage Capital laying off a majority of its staff, weeks after pausing any investments in new startups. The workforce reduction, which impacted nine of Backstage Capital’s 12-person staff, was due to a lack of capital from limited partners, per fund founder Arlan Hamilton.
Here’s why it’s important: Backstage Capital has invested in over 200 startups built by historically overlooked entrepreneurs, while Hamllton herself has invested in more than two dozen venture capital funds. Despite having impact, no single firm can be immune from the difficulties of venture (or growing in an environment full of macroeconomic and cultural hurdles). Below is an excerpt of my story.
Without more support, it becomes difficult to close shop on new investments, bring more assets under management and bring more follow-on investments, Hamilton said.
“Somebody asked me, ‘why don’t you have more under management?’” she said during the podcast. “You gotta ask these LPs, you gotta ask these family offices, you gotta ask these people who ask me, ‘how can I be helpful,’ and I say ‘invest in our fund,’ and I never hear from them again.”
Africa charts its own course
TC’s Dominic-Madori Davis and Tage Kene-Okafor wrote a story about how the downturn is playing out in Africa, essentially answering why we should all be tuning into the continent’s activity this summer.
Here’s why it matters: Africa’s venture capital totals weren’t too shabby in the first quarter, but investors think that it may just be a reporting delay. If most of the deals were finalized before high interest rates, the war and inflation, experts say, we may see an economic downturn soon start affecting developing markets. The story doesn’t stop there; I’d read more to see what Tiger Global tells us and how August is shaping up to be a key month of movement.
Across the week
Seen on TechCrunch
Seen on TechCrunch+
Until next time,
Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring
MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.
According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.
Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.
An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”
But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.
Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.
“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”
Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.
Aramco’s Prosperity7 powers AI drug firm Insilico’s $95M round
Hong Kong-based drug discovery and development company Insilico has secured fresh capital at a time that its CEO described as a “biotech winter.”
The firm has raised $35 million on the heels of its last tranche in June, bringing its total Series D investment to $95 million. The new round was “oversubscribed”, the firm’s founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told TechCrunch, declining to disclose the company’s valuation.
Prosperity7, the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, led the new capital infusion. The fund has been actively scouring for opportunities in and around China that can scale globally and particularly in the Middle East.
Insilico, which operates R&D teams across Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York, seems to be a good fit for Prosperity7.
“Prosperity7 inspired us to look into sustainable chemistry,” said Zhavoronkov. Insilico uses machine learning to identify potential drug targets and eventually create the drug. The same technology can also be applied to find novel and useful molecules for sustainable chemistry, an emerging area to which Aramco has devoted much effort, the founder explained.
Sustainable chemistry, as defined by OECD, is “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.” It “encompasses the design, manufacture, and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes.”
Other investors from the round include an unnamed “large, diversified asset management firm on the U.S. West Coast,” and an assortment of financial and strategic investors like BHR Partners, Warburg Pincus, B Capital Group, Qiming Venture Partners, Deerfield, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, BOLD Capital Partners, and Pavilion Capital.
Zhavoronkov himself also invested in the Series D financing.
When asked why the company straddles China and the U.S., the founder compared the drug discovery space to the early semiconductor industry where research was done mostly in the U.S. while hardware production happened in China.
AI drug discovery relies on a massive amount of investment in so-called contract research organizations (CROs), which provide support to pharmaceutical or medical device companies in the form of outsourcing. China, exemplified by cities like Wuxi, has in recent years emerged as a popular CRO hub for international pharma companies.
The founder was also keen to speak about the company’s new dual-CEO structure. He recently promoted GSK veteran Dr. Feng Ren to be his co-CEO, who is now overseeing Insilico’s R&D and drug business, while Zhavoronkov focuses on the firm’s AI platform.
“Ren generates a lot of proprietary data for us to train AI to do better than humans. We can use this internally for drug discovery and then export this tech to the rest of the industry,” Zhavoronkov said.
Egyptian startup Convertedin raises $3M, caters to e-commerce brands in MENA and Latin America
Convertedin, an Egyptian startup that operates a marketing operating system for e-commerce brands, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by Saudi Arabia-headquartered Merak Capital.
Other participating investors include 500 Global and MSAS. The company, in a statement, said it plans to utilize the funds for strategic hiring and further development of its platform.
When brands shift to e-commerce sales, they operate with vast amounts of fragmented data that need to be unified to drive informed decisions and growth. As such, platforms like Convertedin become essential because it caters to brands and businesses with one, some, or all of these objectives: drive personalized and scalable campaigns, convert customers, achieve measurable results and grow revenue.
CEO Mohamed Fergany founded the company with Mohamed Atef and Mustafa Raslan in 2019 after working with several brands in companies such as Speakol Ads and Vodafone. His time as an employee opened his eyes to the opportunity of helping offline stores retarget and retain their customers online while finding new ones to shop at their stores offline.
“If you work into IKEA and they take your phone number down. After that, our engine works to find a similar product you might buy and we retarget you online. If you went back to IKEA for that product, we can calculate the cost of online conversion,” the chief executive said in the interview. “This was the main idea at this time as we saw a huge problem where there was no analytics platform for the offline store or a retargeting mechanism.”
As the pandemic hit and offline stores were forced to close their doors, many of these brands turned to e-commerce, and as a result, Convertedin took its business online too.
Fergany argues that though online brands use CRM software to gather data, they do not utilize most of it. So Convertedin offers a solution where they can use their data best. It plugs into more than 10 major e-commerce platforms and ad networks — and brands, once connected, can place customers into different segments such as high- and low-value and categories like those looking for specific products and use these insights to create personalized multi-channel marketing and drive various campaigns on social media, SMS, email, search and other channels while having the ability to track and attribute revenue conversion.
Convertedin says SMB e-commerce marketers that use its platform increase their return on ad spend (ROAS) by 2x and reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) by 40%. So far, the company partners with media buying and advertising agencies and works with over 100 local and multinational brands across Africa, the Middle East and South America in the automotive, healthcare and technology industries. Convertedin’s revenues from these businesses have been growing in “double-digits” month-over-month, Fergany said.
The three-year-old Egypt-headquartered company also has offices in Saudi Arabia and Brazil; it just recently opened one in the latter. The South American market is enormous, with e-commerce revenues reaching $160 billion by 2025 from over 200 million users. As a result, Convertedin plans to make its services available in Portuguese — in addition to English and Arabic — for brands in Brazil and also Mexico, another South American market. Fergany also said Convertedin is eyeing South Africa and India too.
“We focus on emerging markets and if you look at it from healthy unit economics, we can sell easily in those countries because there is low competition there,” said the CEO on the expansion to five new markets, including Saudi Arabia. “And customer acquisition cost is low compared to the U.S. or Europe markets.” The new investment will help Convertedin with this expansion in addition to R&D and hiring.
In a statement, Ahmed Aljibreen, partner at lead investor Merak Capital, addressing his firm’s investment, said the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing platforms adds a new layer of challenges for e-commerce companies — and that Convertedin solves that. Hence, the reason why Merak Capital backed the firm. “We are excited to back Convertedin, a martech company that has built a state-of-the-art platform to simplify digital marketing, improve customer acquisition and drive growth for its clients. Convertedin is led by a world-class team in which we have tremendous confidence as the company embarks on its next stage of growth in MENA and Latin America.”
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